Amy Webb (@amywebb) is an author and the founder and CEO of The Future Today Institute — a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures. Her latest book is The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.
What We Discuss with Amy Webb:
- Synthetic biology will change the world in three key areas: medicine, food, and the environment.
- How pandemics might be wiped out by engineering immunity to deadly diseases on demand before they have a chance to take hold. (Alternatively, how pandemics might be created by engineering new diseases against which we have no defense.)
- Forget waiting your turn on the donor list: we’ll be able to print new vital, life-sustaining organs from scratch instead of relying on unpredictable supply.
- When we have the ability to resurrect extinct species, will we possess the wisdom to prudently decide what lives again and what stays dead forever?
- How meat can be grown from cells in labs without slaughtering animals and consuming the resources necessary to sustain them.
- And much more…
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The upside of synthetic biology is its promise to vastly improve medicine, food, and the environment in the foreseeable future. The downside is that this magnificent technology is not without sizable risks.
On this episode, we’re joined by Amy Webb, CEO of The Future Today Institute and co-author of The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology. Here, we discuss the pros and cons of synthetic biology — ways it might be used to eliminate (or create) new pandemics, how donor transplant lists for vital organs will be made obsolete as we print brand new supply on demand, the possibility of resurrecting extinct species or hacking Neanderthal DNA to make Homo sapiens more physically robust, how massive scaling of lab-grown meat can feed the world without the need for slaughtering animals and the resources necessary to sustain them, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Miss our conversation with transformative technology specialist Nina Schick about the effect deepfakes will have in a world where facts don’t matter as much as they once did? Listen to episode 486: Nina Schick | Deepfakes and the Coming Infocalypse here!
Thanks, Amy Webb!
If you enjoyed this session with Amy Webb, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
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Resources from This Episode:
- The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel | Amazon
- Other Books by Amy Webb | Amazon
- Tech Trends and Scenarios | Future Today Institute
- Amy Webb | Website
- Amy Webb | Twitter
- Amy Webb | Facebook
- George Church Explains How DNA Will Be Construction Material of the Future | Der Spiegel
- NOAA Predicts Above-Normal 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Rob Reid | Synthetic Biology for Medicine and Murder | Jordan Harbinger
- Colonizing Mars May Require Humanity to Tweak Its DNA | Space
- NASA Scientist: Yes, Humans Can One Day Live on Mars | Interesting Engineering
- Amy Webb Explains the Paradox of the Present | Cheddar News
- Synthetic Biology | National Human Genome Research Institute
- Crick, Watson, and Franklin: DNA Structure | Khan Academy
- What is CRISPR? | New Scientist
- Seven Genetically Modified Animals That Glow in the Dark | The Week
- Plastic-Eating Enzyme Could Eliminate Billions of Tons of Landfill Waste | UT News
- Algae In, Petroleum Out | WNDR Alpine
- Biosynthetic Fibres | Win-Win Textiles Showroom
- Inspired by Nature. Designing for the Future. | Bolt Threads
- Sustainable Vegan Mycelium Leather | Mylo Unleather
- Stan Smith Mylo: Made Using Mushrooms | Adidas
- Mushrooms Communicate with Each Other Using up to 50 ‘Words’, Scientist Claims | The Guardian
- How GMO Crops Impact Our World | FDA
- What Is a Bioreactor and How Does It Work? | Infors HT
- How to Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch | Food Network
- Americans Projected to Eat 1.42 Billion Chicken Wings for Super Bowl LVI | National Chicken Council
- Singapore Aims to Lead the World in Lab-Grown Meat | Intelligent Living
- Lab-Grown Organs Could Solve the Transplant Crisis | Wired UK
- A Man Who Got the 1ST Pig Heart Transplant Has Died after Two Months | NPR
- Lab-Grown Mini-Organs Help Model Disease, Test New Drugs | AAAS
- ‘Xenobot’ Living Robots Can Reproduce | The Scientist Magazine
- Playing Tic-Tac-Toe Using Genetic Neural Network with Double Transfer Functions | Journel of Intelligent Learning Systems and Applications
- The Future Has Arrived — It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed Yet | Quote Investigator
- Types of Corrective Eye Surgery | Vistar Eye Center
- Implanted Biosynthetic Corneas Can Regenerate Tissue, Restoring Vision in Humans | Popular Science
- The Future Called: We’re Disgusting and Barbaric | Wired
- On This Day in Telephone History: May 18th, 1877 | The Telephone Museum, Inc.
- Moore’s Law | Investopedia
- Moore’s Law and the Carlson Curve | Two Steps Ahead
- DNA Sequencing Fact Sheet | National Human Genome Research Institute
- Blackstone to Acquire Ancestry.com for $4.7 Billion | Reuters
- US Warns of Efforts by China to Collect Genetic Data | The New York Times
- China’s CRISPR Twins Might Have Had Their Brains Inadvertently Enhanced | MIT Technology Review
- Desmond Shum | Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in China | Jordan Harbinger
- FDR Creates the Works Progress Administration (WPA) | History
- Researchers Use Embryonic Stem Cells to Create Living Model Embryos for Research | NPR
- The Expanse | Prime Video
- Researchers De-Extincted a Killer Pox Virus for $100k Using Mail Order DNA | Fanatical Futurist
- The Deadliest Virus | The New Yorker
- What Is “Gain-of-Function” Research? | The Economist
- The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South | Smithsonian Magazine
- China ‘Modified’ the Weather to Create Clear Skies for Political Celebration – Study | The Guardian
- COP26: Together for Our Planet | United Nations
- Thomas Kostigen | Hacking Planet Earth | Jordan Harbinger
- Cellular Rejuvenation Programming | Altos Labs
- Genetically Engineered Bioweapons: A New Breed of Weapons for Modern Warfare | Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science
- Trump’s DNA is Reportedly for Sale. Here’s What Someone Could Do with It. | OneZero
- Macron Refused Russian COVID Test in Putin Trip over DNA Theft Fears | Reuters
687: Amy Webb | Changing Lives with Synthetic Biology
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[00:00:16] Amy Webb: There are the much more real potential problems of things like cyber bio malware. The way that synbio works is you still need computers. You're developing code. You have to write the code, you edit the code, you send the code to a printer, you send it to a manufacturer, and it's been proven more than once that there are vulnerabilities in that system. And you could create totally benign biological code, but you could inject malware in the process. Meaning you could send off a benign sample and get back a deadly virus. Now, luckily that hasn't happened yet, but there are, you know, it's not like human scientists are standing with a pipette and individual test tubes, all the stuff relies on AI, the cloud, 5G on tech, and tech is insecure.
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[00:01:57] Today, we're talking with futurist author and CEO, Amy Webb. We'll discuss synthetic biology and how it'll change the world in three specific areas — medicine, food, and the environment. We will see major advances in how we live and the quality of our lives, how we eat, and even how we humans engineer ourselves to get rid of or be immune to certain diseases or ailments. We're going to be able to print new organs — you heard me. Bring extinct animals back to life — Jurassic Park, anyone? And yeah, possibly kill ourselves off in the process by creating new and horrible diseases or just dinosaurs that need us. Who the hell knows? Well, actually she knows. She is just brilliant. You all are going to love this conversation and it will open your mind to what's coming down the pipeline in terms of biological technology, both inside and outside of our lifetimes and probably a lot sooner than you think.
[00:02:48] Now, here we go with Amy Webb.
[00:02:55] I've heard you say that we could mix Neanderthal DNA and human DNA to make stronger bones for people who would otherwise get osteoporosis. That was sort of the intro sound bite that I got for the book. And I was like, I'm sold because I want to know how to make myself more caveman to make myself more resilient. On the other hand, it sounds incredibly dangerous and probably like it's a terrible idea.
[00:03:16] Amy Webb: So, first of all, that's not entirely my idea. So George Church, who's a prominent geneticist—
[00:03:22] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:22] Amy Webb: —scientist at Harvard really like pushes his thinking to the very edge of plausibility in a way that I think is incredibly profound and beneficial. And one of those edge cases is we've got human DNA, but like, is this the best we can do?
[00:03:37] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:37] Amy Webb: There are derivatives at some point we forked. Is there something about those who were living near us, around us, you know, is there some other part of our evolution that we might be able to tap into? And if so, would that make us more resilient? The bottom line is we are facing existential crises on this planet, right? And it has to do with climate change and food security and all kinds of things.
[00:04:00] And in fact, this morning, NOAA announced in New York City, which was kind of a weird place to make an announcement about hurricanes, that this is going to be the worst hurricane season on record. They're expecting four significant storms. There's this weird phenomenon where there's this like very hot pool of water. That's going to hang out around the Gulf and just add more energy to the atmosphere.
[00:04:22] The planet is changing. Our bodies aren't evolving as quickly. So what if one way for us to prepare for the future was to make our skin a little thicker for there to be more collagen—
[00:04:33] Jordan Harbinger: Like literally thicker skin, not a metaphor for something.
[00:04:36] Amy Webb: No, no, no. Although, Jordan, I like where you're going with that.
[00:04:39] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:04:39] Amy Webb: I also think we should have thicker skins, generally speaking.
[00:04:42] Jordan Harbinger: Like Twitter doesn't even bother me anymore. Thanks to this neo-neanderthal DNA that I've injected.
[00:04:45] Amy Webb: Oh my god. Can you imagine what a better world we'd live in if Twitter didn't matter so much to everybody?
[00:04:50] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:04:50] Amy Webb: Anyways, but yeah, both metaphorically and literally, if we had thicker skin, could we withstand the elements a little bit better? Now, people will say that's a terrible idea because it's tinkering with what God made.
[00:05:03] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:05:03] Amy Webb: It's just tinkering with life and also doesn't solve the climate issue. And what I would say is, Hey, doesn't this give us optionality. And let's just explore and see where we get." It doesn't necessarily mean monsters. So, you know, Neanderthals had much more collagen. They had thicker bone, better bone density. They had some things going for them that we don't.
[00:05:25] Jordan Harbinger: This is so interesting because it dovetails nicely with other episodes I've done on technology augmenting the brain and it's like, "Hey, let's skip the wires and just figure out how to change our actual body into — I don't know what you would call this, like Meet hardware, right? Like I don't need like—
[00:05:42] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:05:42] Jordan Harbinger: —night vision goggles. I can literally live with night vision that I can use at any time, and it's in there.
[00:05:51] Amy Webb: Yeah. And again, I would put to rest immediately ideas that this tech is ready tomorrow.
[00:05:57] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:05:57] Amy Webb: We're talking about long-horizon technology. But, yeah, so you're right. We keep coming up with hardware solutions to things that might someday be wetware solutions.
[00:06:09] Jordan Harbinger: Wetware yeah.
[00:06:09] Amy Webb: And again, if you allow your mind to wander productively, think about some of the conversations we're having about space and becoming a multi-planet species and specifically Mars. At the moment, we are not in our current form—
[00:06:23] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:06:23] Amy Webb: —in our current containers, humans aren't really designed to survive on Mars. It would take a lot. You know, it would take a lot of infrastructure and building, right? And even if we did that, you've still got radiation. You've got all of these other issues to contend with. Well, what if we augment it ourselves so that we could live on Mars?
[00:06:42] You know, there's another way to start thinking these things through. And again, not tomorrow technology further in the future tech, but you have to start thinking about these things today and not being constrained by reality as it exists at this moment.
[00:06:58] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I've heard we need to be sort of, like you said, radiation-proof, maybe use less water and food because it's going to be hard to come by when you're flying to and living on Mars. There was a lot of concern or not concerns, a lot of different ideas about what we would need to be concerned about if we ended up living on a planet like Mars. It kind of sounds horrible, but there's people that are up for that as long as they don't die on the way slash the second they land, right?
[00:07:22] Amy Webb: There's something called the paradox of the present. So I'm a quantitative futurist. And my job — when I'm not writing books — is to use data and build models to identify plausible next-order impacts. And so most of the time I'm doing those for large companies who are trying to figure out where's their next big bet, what's the next big strategy, or what's the huge risk that's coming and how do they mitigate it. But the same principles apply to thinking about yourself in your own personal development and just thinking in a more profound way about your own life and how life itself evolves.
[00:08:00] And as it relates to Mars, I think we get stuck in this thing called the paradox of the present. And that happens all the time, actually in business, you know, individuals. The paradox of the present is taking what you know to be true today. And assuming that the future is that but more or that but faster, right?
[00:08:19] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:08:19] Amy Webb: And what we tend not to do is explore uncertainty with an open mind and agree that there's any number of variables that are potentially in play. So we could become a multi-planet species by augmenting our genetics so that we can withstand greater radiation. That's not plausible at the moment, but it's absolutely plausible, you know, sometime in the relative near future. So just because we're not doing it today, doesn't mean that we can't do it tomorrow. So when you hear scientists very validly talk about why life on Mars is implausible and whatever, it's because they're using today's constraints. It's the paradox of the present.
[00:08:58] Jordan Harbinger: That does make sense. I mean, it's hard to take, I mean, this is your job, so it's easier for you, but it's hard for someone like me to go, "Oh yeah. All we need to do is just put a bunch of solar panels up there. Oh, there's not enough sun that gets to Mars. Oh, well, that idea's never going to work." And it's like, well, wait a minute. If solar panels are getting better, then you can create more energy with less light. And so you'll have these solar panels that are a thousand times more sensitive than what you'd ever use on earth, and then your concern that you have now is moot and not even really worth thinking about, right? That kind of idea?
[00:09:27] Amy Webb: Yeah. And again, sometimes people get frustrated when they have conversations with me because my answer to a lot of things is maybe.
[00:09:36] Jordan Harbinger: Well, yeah, lawyers do that too. Don't worry. You're not alone.
[00:09:40] Amy Webb: Yeah. So I dropped out of law school before. I made a last-minute decision. You're a lawyer.
[00:09:44] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:09:44] Amy Webb: I made a last-minute decision not to go. I think I would've been a disaster in law school.
[00:09:49] Jordan Harbinger: Well, yeah, like me as well.
[00:09:52] Amy Webb: Anyways, solar panels make sense to some degree on this planet. There are lots of different options for energy. We have to come up with the right solution when we start thinking about off-planet living. Again, we always are hamstrung by constraints, our own mental constraints, and we also want answers. Most people are not comfortable with uncertainty. Certainty drives much of the daily decision-making that we all make. And that is fine, but it creates a lot of problems.
[00:10:25] Jordan Harbinger: Can we define synthetic biology? The topic of your recent book and most of what I talk about, or what I have to talk with you about today is going to be synthetic biology, but most people don't know what that is. And people who've been listening for a long time have heard my episode with Rob Reid about printable diseases that I'll touch on later, but otherwise, it doesn't really mean anything to the uninitiated.
[00:10:47] Amy Webb: Yeah, totally. And actually, if you're a regular listener of the show, believe it or not, you've already been hearing about it. You just haven't had the vocabulary to describe it. So synthetic biology is a relatively new interdisciplinary field of science. It combines design, computer science, biology, engineering. And the goal is to redesign or design organisms on a molecular level to have new purposes and that makes those organisms more adaptable to different surroundings or programmable so that they do things that you want them to do.
[00:11:26] This field is really intent on seeing how we can make life in an organic way, programmable. So if you think about computers, you have different levels of permission. You've got read access to files, you've got edit access and write access. Well, the same is true in biology. We had read access. That was when Watson and Crick — not stole, but like use somebody else's work without giving her credit. That would be Rosalind Franklin. And they could see the double helix and eventually that laid the foundation to sort of read what was there.
[00:12:02] CRISPR is edit access. So that's being able to go in with sort of molecular scissors and making snips. Synthetic biology is write-access. And by that, I mean, there are scientists writing new genetic code and booting cells up from scratch.
[00:12:19] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:12:19] Amy Webb: Those cells that are alive technically have computers as parents, not other organisms.
[00:12:25] Jordan Harbinger: That's a really awesome explanation and makes it a thousand times more interesting than I've ever heard this explained before. Because the idea that we can create new organisms that are not just — because right now we breed things, right? If you want a turtle that's albino or something, you've got to find, I don't know, two albino turtles and breed them. I don't know how it works, but you've got to do something like that. This is like, actually, I want turtles that glow in the dark so that they can be used for some weird, I don't know, creepy purpose.
[00:12:55] Amy Webb: Yeah, no, you're right. You're totally right. Glowing things, by the way, is the sort of hello world of synthetic biology.
[00:13:02] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:13:02] Amy Webb: So when people get started, a lot of their early projects are like, make things glow. There's glow fish. Somebody made like glow-in-the-dark beer. So glow-in-the-dark albino turtles, like Jordan, that's an awesome project you could work on.
[00:13:14] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It doesn't seem very useful and they would get eaten right away by whatever eats turtles, but it's fine. Maybe you want to bio-illuminate a restaurant, so you make all the things in the fish tank glow, which also sounds mean but whatever. The idea is I have no idea what kind of example to make other than that because the possibilities are so endless that my mind is truly blown by this.
[00:13:36] And we could create all kinds of — the idea that I've had for a long time that I have, of course, no idea how to implement, is some kind of organism that eats plastic, right? Because we have all this plastic in the ocean. We have all this crap in the dump. What if something like a worm eats it and then it just grows big and dies and then becomes fertilizer. And it's like the plastic that we bury or that we throw in the ocean is just gone now. That would be amazing.
[00:14:00] Amy Webb: Yeah. So actually you're on to something important and enzyme-eating plastic is definitely something that it's research that's underway.
[00:14:08] Jordan Harbinger: Plastic-eating enzyme, right?
[00:14:09] Amy Webb: Sorry. Yes, yes, other way around.
[00:14:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:11] Amy Webb: Plastic- eating enzyme. Is there an organism that would eat plastic and excrete something that wasn't dangerous, for example?
[00:14:20] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:20] Amy Webb: So that's one set of experiments. Another one is, well maybe could we just use less plastic, to begin with? So plastic is made out of petroleum.
[00:14:29] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:14:29] Amy Webb: And the problem with that, as we all know is it's not great for the environment. We also have supply chain issues as evidenced by what's happening in Ukraine right now and part of where the global supply of petroleum comes from. There's a really cool company that is making skis out of algae.
[00:14:47] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:14:47] Amy Webb: So if anybody's ever skied — I ski very badly, but you don't want your skis to be like super floppy.
[00:14:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:55] Amy Webb: Right?
[00:14:55] Jordan Harbinger: I know that much.
[00:14:56] Amy Webb: Yeah. So like, if you had skis or snowboards that had the rigidity that you need, but only let's say 30 percent of the plastic and the rest was made out of algae, that is totally biodegradable. You haven't totally solved the plastic problem, but you're using a lot less plastic. And also when you make skis and snowboards, they use forms, but then they have to cut around it. So you wind up with a ton of waste.
[00:15:20] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:15:20] Amy Webb: So this reduces some of that waste. There's also nylon — a lot of the cool stuff happening in this space is not designer babies. It's redesigning stuff that is pretty toxic. So like nylon is in just about everything that we use to some degree. And again, this is a product that requires petroleum. Well, now researchers have figured out how to make the same molecule, but out of like fermented sugars instead.
[00:15:45] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[00:15:47] Amy Webb: Yeah, so you can have biosynthetic nylon, which is just as strong and durable, but again, not as problematic when it comes to supply chains and geopolitics and obviously climate change.
[00:15:59] Jordan Harbinger: I read in your book about the leather that's made from spider silk. It's obviously not real leather, but it's just like—
[00:16:04] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:16:04] Jordan Harbinger: —some sort of analogous compound. That's maybe really hard to tell what it is. And it's like, hey, this didn't require torturing an animal.
[00:16:12] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:16:13] Jordan Harbinger: All the other things that go with raising an animal in the first place, just for the skin.
[00:16:16] Amy Webb: Yeah. So again, there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in the space and there's a company that is making silk out of different compounds. There's also a company making leather out of mycelium. So this is like the complex underground sort of fibrous root structure, connecting mushrooms to each other.
[00:16:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:16:34] Amy Webb: Yeah. There's a pair of Adidas that are coming out sometime soon, that they may have already come out, that are made out of this stuff. Like to the average person, you would think they were leather shoes, but they're actually made out of mushrooms.
[00:16:46] Jordan Harbinger: That's so incredible. Mushrooms are themselves just incredible. They like talk to each other somehow. I mean, it's just really like alien-level technology somehow.
[00:16:55] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:16:56] Jordan Harbinger: That's a whole different show.
[00:16:57] The idea that synthetic biology could upgrade humans in other species is interesting. I don't want to delve too far into the sci-fi, but a lot of what I read in your book was not even sci-fi. Like, it was really, totally on the roadmap, maybe a long time in the future, but still totally on the roadmap, but things like nuts and crops that need less water and have higher yields to feed more people, or can maybe grow indoors with less sunlight or at different elevations or whatever this stuff is not super far away. Correct?
[00:17:24] Amy Webb: No. And of all the things we wrote about in this book, there's a lot of, I think, controversial concepts and ideas. The future of agriculture was not the part of the book that I thought was going to set off a firestorm of public debate and—
[00:17:38] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:17:38] Amy Webb: —have a lot of like calls to cancel me online. And yet that's kind of what happens.
[00:17:44] Jordan Harbinger: Are you kidding? That's like the most—
[00:17:45] Amy Webb: I am not.
[00:17:45] Jordan Harbinger: I pick that as like a softball to ease into the other stuff. Yeah,
[00:17:49] Amy Webb: No, the multi-parent future, not so much, but like messing with agriculture — so couple of things, there are already gigantic warehouse scale, indoor plant farms, indoor plant factories operating in Europe.
[00:18:04] Jordan Harbinger: They're called greenhouses, if memory — like, right? I mean, they're not—
[00:18:06] Amy Webb: Well, not really. I mean, it's—
[00:18:08] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:18:09] Amy Webb: If the difference between a traditional greenhouse, which is a little smaller and what we're talking about, which is inside of like a huge warehouse to some degree is light. So there's fiber-optic light, not direct sunlight. The conditions are different. There are plant factories that are operating underground effectively.
[00:18:27] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:18:27] Amy Webb: That are growing enough produce to supply local, like many local grocery stores throughout Europe. Now, why would you go through the process of growing things indoors if it requires modifying the DNA of the organism? Which immediately makes people think GMO. There's a lot of reasons.
[00:18:45] First of all, genetically modified is not tantamount to some kind of like Franken tomato, right? Franken monster, horrible piece of produce. It just means that in a responsible way, somebody has tweaked the organism so that it is more resilient in different conditions. Okay. It doesn't necessarily have to do with fertilizer or something like that, you know, using some brand fertilizer. If you can very slightly tweak the genetic code of organisms to grow indoors, that gives you control. You don't have to worry about extreme weather events or hurricanes. You use significantly less water. It is much less taxing. It's actually in some cases better for the planet than other ways of raising produce. You get less variability.
[00:19:33] So it's actually a good thing, but it's very controversial because it is not the way that things have traditionally been done. But the other way to frame this is agriculture as we know it today really hasn't changed in like 14,000 years. It hasn't. We've got big tractors, but we're basically doing the same stuff. There hasn't been huge innovation. So there's that. There's also this unlocks new ways to get meat proteins.
[00:20:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:20:01] Amy Webb: If you have four grams of beef muscle tissue, you can produce, you know, 28 billion pounds of beef, which is more than enough to feed the United States in how much we consume.
[00:20:16] Jordan Harbinger: Why is that? What four grams — wait, how does that work out? I guess I missed that.
[00:20:20] Amy Webb: Right. So there's no company doing it at scale yet, because at the moment it's still cheaper to produce beef by raising livestock, but you get what's called a bioreactor. So imagine like a gigantic pressure cooker and you start with tissue cells, which you can extract from an animal without harming the animal at all. And then you feed it amino acids, you control the temperature and everything else. And you wind up with edible tissue.
[00:20:50] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:20:50] Amy Webb: Yeah, I can give you a crazy example of a place where it's already been on sale if that's useful.
[00:20:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, please do. By the way, four grams, that's like an earlobe's worth of tissue.
[00:21:00] Amy Webb: Right.
[00:21:00] Jordan Harbinger: So if you want a giant earlobe, you could take one of mine and grow it and you can eat for a week off of the results.
[00:21:06] Amy Webb: Well, I mean, here's maybe a way to think about this — I love that, by the way, the earlobe, that's a wonderful analogy.
[00:21:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Feel free to use that one. It's pretty gross.
[00:21:14] Amy Webb: It's pretty gross and pretty awesome. But sourdough bread, right? To make sourdough bread, you have to have a sourdough starter.
[00:21:21] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:21:21] Amy Webb: And one sourdough starter over time becomes this huge yield if you keep it working. So it's another way to sort of wrap your head around how some of this works. I don't know if you know this, but in February, every year, the entire country shuts down for a single event. An event where the men take the ball and they move the ball down the field for the points—
[00:21:45] Jordan Harbinger: Oh great.
[00:21:46] Amy Webb: Familiar with this event?
[00:21:46] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Yeah. I don't watch it, but I have heard of it.
[00:21:49] Amy Webb: I don't want you there. It's the Super Bowl. And I think those who are not playing football in the Super Bowl are constitutionally mandated to eat chicken wings. My point, being Americans on a single day on the Super Bowl consume 1.5 billion, with a B, chicken wings.
[00:22:06] Jordan Harbinger: That's so pretty gross.
[00:22:07] Amy Webb: And that requires 725 chickens that we consume on a single day. So think about what that requires, a massive cold chain.
[00:22:15] Jordan Harbinger: What? 725, what?
[00:22:18] Amy Webb: Million chickens.
[00:22:18] Jordan Harbinger: Million chickens, right, okay.
[00:22:19] Amy Webb: To get to 1.5 billion chicken wings.
[00:22:22] Jordan Harbinger: I could have done the math in my head, I think, but I didn't try. Yeah. That makes sense. Wow.
[00:22:26] Amy Webb: Think about what it takes to get that to happen. You need a global supply chain with a cold chain. So this is what makes it possible to transport things that have to be preserved. You need to grow chickens fast. Today's chickens that you buy are really — they're like monster chickens.
[00:22:42] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:22:42] Amy Webb: They're like pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. Very different from chickens a hundred years ago. This process is not great for us. It's definitely not good for the planet. It's really not good for the chickens. isn't there another way to think about this? So again, this is where synthetic biology comes into play. If you start with the tissue, the muscle tissue, you ferment it over time. You can have delicious, wonderful chicken meat that never had any of the hormones, wasn't engineered to grow super fast and you could create that at scale. We could have three billion chicken wings for dinner. No, you're not going to get the bone yet, so it's going to be like a chicken. Wing sort of type of thing.
[00:23:25] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, you can put it on a stick. I think people will survive. That's barely an adjustment, right?
[00:23:30] Amy Webb: So I mean, the economics don't work out right now. That you're not going to go to 10-cent chicken wing night. I don't know if those exist anymore. They did when I was in college.
[00:23:37] Jordan Harbinger: They're probably 25 cents now but, yeah.
[00:23:38] Amy Webb: Probably more. So it's going to take a while, but this chicken has already gone on sale in Singapore. It took two years to get through a regulatory process, but you can buy it and you can eat it there now. If you stop and think about the profound implications here, what's really cool is we could actually have significantly more meat than we have today, but we could also have significantly different meat. You could eat panda steak and feel totally fine about it because no pandas were harmed in the process.
[00:24:07] Jordan Harbinger: You could have a lion just to see what it's like.
[00:24:09] Amy Webb: Yeah. Cocker spaniel kebabs, right?
[00:24:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Still sounds gross.
[00:24:13] Amy Webb: It still sounds gross. I would absolutely eat cocker spaniel kebabs and feel totally fine about it.
[00:24:18] Jordan Harbinger: When I read about this, I was like, this sounds gross when I say it out loud, but I was going to ask about lab-grown tissue for consumption. Just like you brought up organically here.
[00:24:26] Amy Webb: Mm-hmm.
[00:24:26] Jordan Harbinger: And then I thought, okay, I have to clarify that. I don't mean growing human brain tissue so I can eat brain sashimi or something.
[00:24:32] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:24:32] Jordan Harbinger: I was thinking more like lab-grown fish could prevent overfishing and destructive trawling and things like that. Lab-grown meat would eliminate the factory farms that we talk about the pollution going there but also — and I think you mentioned this in the book. You could grow, if we want to call it growing, you could grow sushi in Nebraska instead of shipping it in from the coast with an airplane or a cold truck. And you could be eating fresh sushi, that's grown in the restaurant where you eat it in Turkmenistan or Sudan or something like that.
[00:25:01] Amy Webb: That's absolutely right. So I grew up in the Midwest.
[00:25:04] Jordan Harbinger: Same.
[00:25:04] Amy Webb: On the south side of Chicago. Are you from the east Chicagoland area?
[00:25:07] Jordan Harbinger: Michigan.
[00:25:08] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:25:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, north of Detroit.
[00:25:09] Amy Webb: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Anyways, so yeah, so I don't know if you grew up eating lake perch at all. And now that I think about it, that lake perch was probably not super healthy, given the industrial area that they came from.
[00:25:20] Jordan Harbinger: I'm sure that I, I grew up eating a lot of stuff that was caught in the Great Lakes that had—
[00:25:24] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:25:25] Jordan Harbinger: —lead in it from. I mean, Ford, GM, and all the auto makers.
[00:25:28] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:25:28] Jordan Harbinger: They just dumped everything into the Rouge River, which flows—
[00:25:31] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:25:32] Jordan Harbinger: God knows where into those lakes, yeah.
[00:25:33] Amy Webb: Yeah. Well, every now and then I have a taste for lake perch, which is what I grew up eating.
[00:25:38] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:25:39] Amy Webb: And it's actually kind of hard to find where I am now. So yeah, like I could have a little fermentor or I could open up a restaurant with a little fermentor and I could ferment and grow lake perch, healthy lake perch without all the heavy metals in it from Lake Michigan. Again, it's just a different way of thinking. And what we're talking about right now is so contradictory to what exists today. That it's just really hard for people to conceptualize what that could look like. And then it becomes scary because this is what we're talking about invites a lot of disruption in the economy. I think it also invites a lot of opportunities to grow in a better way, but it means change and change can be scary.
[00:26:23] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Amy Webb. We'll be right back.
[00:26:28] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help online therapy. If you're going through any major life transitions, like getting married, moving in with your significant other, maybe thinking about having kids — Jen and I actually spoke to a therapist before moving in together and honestly it helped a ton. She brought up some things that we hadn't even considered before. Our friend that just recently got married. She also signed up for Better Help to talk about how stressful wedding planning was, her feelings about having kids. Better Help has helped her work through some relationship issues. And she told us that if she hadn't been talking to the therapist, they might have continued having fights that just went nowhere. Better Help is great because you can actually do weekly video chat or text or phone without having to drive anywhere. Plus it's much more affordable than in-person therapy. And you can get matched with a therapist in under 48 hours. And if you don't click with them, no big deal. Just switch until you find one that works for you. There's no additional charge for that.
[00:27:19] Jen Harbinger: And our listeners get 10 percent off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan. That's better-H-E-L-P.com/jordan.
[00:27:27] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is sponsored in part by IPVanish. Think you're being sleek by browsing online in incognito mode? If you think incognito mode is protecting you from hackers and prying eyes, you are obviously wrong. You're just wrong, all right. If you want to stay truly private and secure on the Internet, you really need to get a VPN. IPVanish is a VPN service that helps you safely browse the Internet by encrypting a hundred percent of your data. So any private details, passwords, communications, browsing history, and more, it's all going to be completely shielded from falling into the wrong hands. I would say that in an evil way, but everything I say right now sounds evil because my voice is trashed. IPVanish makes you virtually invisible online. It is that simple at coffee shops, airports, even at home, I use IPVanish. IPVanish is also super easy to use. You tap a button, you're instantly protected. You won't even know it's on.
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[00:28:37] Jordan Harbinger: If you're wondering how I managed to book these folks for the show — and many of you do ask — it's always about my network and I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Now, this course is naturally about improving your networking and connection skills, but also about inspiring other people to develop personal and professional relationships with you. It'll make you a better networker, a better connector, and a better thinker. That's jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on our show already subscribe and contribute to this course. So come join us. You'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:29:11] Now back to Amy Webb.
[00:29:13] What about — okay, if we can grow, let's say rib meat or chicken wing meat, how far away are we from being able to grow an actual functional organ, right? Like what if I get poisoned by Vladimir Putin — asking for a friend — and I need new kidneys in a liver, how far away are we from being able to grow something that's not just like muscle tissue, that's edible?
[00:29:37] Amy Webb: So that is one key area of this research. As with everything, is there a way we can grow something or engineer something to fix a problem? And then is there a way to just engineer a fix to the problem? So let me address the second one first, which is organ growing, so I'm sure listeners to the show heard about the artificial heart that was grown inside of a pig.
[00:30:02] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:03] Amy Webb: That was, yeah, transplanted.
[00:30:05] Jordan Harbinger: They gave it to a guy and he passed away a few months later, a few weeks later, right?
[00:30:08] Amy Webb: Unfortunately, he did. The growth and the surgery itself were huge milestones, very successful. It turns out that there's a virus that gets carried. And I think what happened was he kind of got infected with that virus. Pigs and humans are much more closely related than we like to think.
[00:30:25] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:30:25] Amy Webb: So tweaking the genomes is one tiny little baby step, but ideally we don't want to have to sort of grow millions of pigs for their organs. Ideally, we just like to grow the organs.
[00:30:38] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:39] Amy Webb: That is definitely on the roadmap. And right now there are lots of projects growing, what are called organoids. So these are teeny tiny little blobs of tissue that you can connect on almost like what looks like a clear domino. So picture like a clear piece of plastic about the size of a domino.
[00:30:58] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:30:58] Amy Webb: Where you've got like a respiratory system with real cells.
[00:31:02] Jordan Harbinger: Really?
[00:31:02] Amy Webb: Real tissue.
[00:31:03] Jordan Harbinger: Wait, this is like a small and scale respiratory system.
[00:31:07] Amy Webb: Yeah. Or you could have a tiny little endocrine system or a reproductive system, and it's called a body on a chip. And you might say, "Why in the hell is anybody doing this?
[00:31:18] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, like what's the use? But I mean, it's also just really freaking cool. It's like a Micromachine, except it works, if people remember those toys from the '80s and '90s.
[00:31:26] Amy Webb: Yeah. Yeah, totally, totally. Well, there's a real good reason why. We have this new virus, SARS-CoV-2, and we need to test different therapeutics and try to understand it. We don't really want to do that on a real person, but we also need to do it fast on some type of simulated real person. Otherwise, we don't get to answer. So bodies on a chip are ways to test, run experiments, test therapeutics, test different products, to see how the organs respond. And it's just really — I mean, you can actually Google this and you can find like circulatory systems on what looks like a translucent domino that are functioning human organoids that you can learn from and watch.
[00:32:08] Jordan Harbinger: That is beyond fascinating. So it's, we can really just grow these tissues or these systems, these whole systems in a lab. And then I guess infect them and then we try a tiny dose of a drug in that same thing, we say like, "Okay, that didn't work, next." And you can just do that tens of thousand or millions of times until you find something that really — you can do all sorts of things that would be completely unethical. Like, "Eh, we're just going to microwave it." You can't do that with a patient, right?
[00:32:34] Amy Webb: Right, right, right.
[00:32:35] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:32:36] Amy Webb: And again, like, so these are teeny tiny little organs, but this is kind of the magic of what we're talking about. It just gives us optionality. It also gives us the ability to program tiny little organs, tiny little blobs of tissues. So there are some researchers that got some cells from an African clawed toad, I think, is what it's called. And they used those, edited them, and created an organism that they can control by moving it around. I don't remember the exact technical—
[00:33:06] Jordan Harbinger: Like a remote control frog.
[00:33:08] Amy Webb: Yeah. It's called a Xenobot. I'm sure you've heard of lots of people talking about programmable, like nanobots.
[00:33:16] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, sure. I'm waiting for them to be able to brush my teeth because I freaking hate doing that every single day of my life. Yeah.
[00:33:21] Amy Webb: I'm brushing my teeth — part of the reason why I'm playing with my teeth a little bit. I just had to get Invisalign.
[00:33:26] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, I had that.
[00:33:27] Amy Webb: Oh my gosh.
[00:33:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:33:28] Amy Webb: I never had orthodontia so I'm just brushing my teeth constantly now.
[00:33:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. And they hurt kind of because they're slightly moved out of — oh, it's so irritating. Yeah.
[00:33:36] Amy Webb: Yeah, whatever. I'm a big baby.
[00:33:39] Jordan Harbinger: I sympathize, yeah. Like first world problems, ah, this really—
[00:33:42] Amy Webb: Exactly.
[00:33:42] Jordan Harbinger: —pain, almost painless convenient solution I ordered in the mail to make my teeth perfect. It Kind of hurts. Oops.
[00:33:47] Amy Webb: Yeah. Anyways, but yeah, there's programmable blobs of tissue. There's an AI system. Somebody just developed to play tic-tac-toe. It's actually living organisms that played tic-tac-toe and they were programmed to like win the game. It's a new type of neural net but made out of, you know, biology or at least—
[00:34:04] Jordan Harbinger: Actual neurons.
[00:34:05] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:34:05] Jordan Harbinger: That's what, what? How do they keep it alive? They just spray it with water every few minutes. How does that even work?
[00:34:11] Amy Webb: That part I don't know. That part I don't know. But what I do know is that we have to come around to the idea that hardware and wetware are kind of becoming the same thing, right? That really, and truly biology and computers and technology, they're starting to intersect, to meld.
[00:34:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. This is like the most cyberpunk thing I've ever heard. I thought that was so far away. And here we are.
[00:34:33] Amy Webb: Yeah. I mean, again, I think people always expect walking, talking robots.
[00:34:36] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:34:37] Amy Webb: You know, the future is here. The famous line that the future is here. It's not just not evenly distributed. You know, what I would say is the future is here. It just didn't show up the way that we all expected. And therefore, we missed it. We missed the developments in real time. They don't meet the expectations that we had. They don't have the shape or the form factor that we were expecting. So we miss things until they reach a level of maturity and then it's like, "Sh*t, how do we miss all of this?" And we get really upset and we freak out and we feel like things are moving fast. And then we want to reign things in.
[00:35:08] Jordan Harbinger: That's sort of every time I have any sort of medical procedure or hear about a new one, I'm always like, this is incredible. This, that this exists. So I had LASIK in the '90s. You know what that is? Where they like laser your eyes.
[00:35:18] Amy Webb: Oh yeah.
[00:35:19] Jordan Harbinger: So I had LASIK in the '90s.
[00:35:21] Amy Webb: That's early days.
[00:35:22] Jordan Harbinger: Early.
[00:35:23] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:35:23] Jordan Harbinger: And I was really scared to do it, but it was like — the guy had a great reputation. I don't know. Who knows? I should probably Google it. But anyway, I'm 42. I have better than 20/20 vision. I've never needed glasses except before LASIK, no contacts, nothing. And I couldn't believe it existed at the time. And you're telling me that in, I don't know, whatever timeline we're on, at some point I might just get new eyes that are not infected with like glaucoma or whatever disease that I might end up with when I'm older, hopefully not.
[00:35:52] Amy Webb: So I love that analogy for a couple of reasons. One, there's actually a lot of work being done on sight. So my husband is an eye doctor, sort of as an aside.
[00:36:01] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow.
[00:36:02] Amy Webb: The eyes are tricky. They're also — a lot of people don't realize this, but this is the direct connection to the brain. It's the only part of our body that is sort of on the outside directly connected in. I mean, you, you can sort of more easily do stuff to manipulate the eye. So that's why some early days synbio work is actually being done to edit things, you know, to make it easier for people to see things like that.
[00:36:28] The other reason I like what you mentioned is because you've already augmented your body. LASIK is just common now. And so we don't think about it as a body mod, but it totally is. Somebody lasered your face.
[00:36:39] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. And I'd let them do it. They lasered my eyeball. This isn't like—
[00:36:43] Amy Webb: Right.
[00:36:44] Jordan Harbinger: —getting a tattoo, like in Starship troopers where they're doing the laser tattoo.
[00:36:47] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:36:47] Jordan Harbinger: This was my eye. I let somebody laser my eyeball. That's—
[00:36:50] Amy Webb: Right.
[00:36:50] Jordan Harbinger: —frankly ridiculous.
[00:36:51] Amy Webb: It is ridiculous. Has it improved your quality of life?
[00:36:54] Jordan Harbinger: Oh yeah. Unbelievable.
[00:36:55] Amy Webb: Right. So it's common now. Like LASIK is not a weird thing. And I guess what I'm trying to — the reason I love what you mentioned was because I really think 10 years from now, we're going to be talking about synthetic biology, the way that we talk about artificial intelligence today, which is to say everybody's got an opinion, very few people know what they're actually talking about, but it's part of the public dialogue. And then 20 years from now, we're going to have a lot of these applications that seem today to be sci-fi, right? But will be normal 20 years from now. In fact, people 20 years from now will look back at us as barbarians, I think, for having eaten meat, like raised animals for their meat for food.
[00:37:36] Jordan Harbinger: Totally. So I'm imagining my grandkids or even my own kids being like, "Wait, I read in a textbook that they were only able to synthesize lab-grown beef in 2030 for wide consumption. So did you just never eat meat before that?" And I'm like, "Oh, are you going to tell them or am I going to going to have to do this?" And it's like, you're just going to have to break it to them that you would take your pig outside and kill it yourself and chop it up and eat it. And they're just going to look at me like I'm a horrible, evil person.
[00:38:05] Amy Webb: Right.
[00:38:05] Jordan Harbinger: It's just going to be completely backwards. It's going to be like when you read now about somebody who bled themselves out to get rid of the black plague or something, and you're just like, "Oh my god, you backward bastards. What were you thinking?"
[00:38:18] Amy Webb: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, I absolutely think people are going to, as we all do, right? This is not an original thought. We always look back, every generation has done it and marveled at how people got by when things were so challenging and tough. Or like, why would they do these barbaric things? That will happen to us too. But I also think there's an opportunity for people to look back to this moment in time and say, "Man, that was an interesting time, an exciting time to be alive because they were the beginning of all of this. They were the originators. They were the ones who gave us all of these options who put humanity on a better course." So I think there's maybe two ways to look at that.
[00:38:58] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. At least we were giving it a shot and people were aware of the problem, which in many ways makes it worse that we're still doing it. But also at least like, hey, we tried.
[00:39:05] Okay. Synbio, synthetic biology is now in many ways, quite nascent, new, up and coming long horizon, I think, is what you'd said. So it'll soon be ubiquitous or in many ways it already is, but the stuff we're talking about will at some point be ubiquitous and people alive in a few decades won't understand how we lived without it. Okay. But where are we on this curve? Are we on like America AOL dial-up Internet? Or are we still at Internet only at universities or are we even back where the Internet was like two guys in a lab? And they're like, "When I type on this computer, I can make it go over to that computer. You're not going to believe this."
[00:39:36] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:39:37] Jordan Harbinger: Where are we on that sort of curve?
[00:39:40] Amy Webb: Right. So we are not at the metaverse part of the hype cycle yet. So we are — I don't know how nerdy everybody is, but I would say we're kind of at the TCP/IP stage, which is my way of saying we've got proof of concept. We've got lots of early, really solid research. We've got products that work. Messenger RNA is a product of what we're talking about. It is synbio. What we don't have yet is scale.
[00:40:07] So the analogy that I use in the book is the very first phone call that got made in Checkering Hall, in New York. On a fateful day, Alexander Graham Bell stands on stage to demonstrate this contraption, this like wooden thing with a metal thing sticking out. Nobody's ever seen anything like this. This is back in the day when like demo days were all the rage versus what we have now, which is tech companies showing things that aren't all that interesting anymore. Anyway, so all these people gather. He's like, "They're ready to go with a demo." And there's a voice on the other side, magically coming through the speaker. And he explains this new device, this telephone. This is a way of communicating people with people who are not in the same place. They scream, "Bullsh*t." They're like, "This is all made up." They're mad. They demand to see behind the curtain. And this angry mob comes behind the curtain to see that there is no person there.
[00:41:03] And that in fact, this contraption actually works. Completely blows people's minds, but it would take another 20 years, 30 years to build all the infrastructure, right? Because you needed power lines, you needed transistors, you know, all these things. And then it would take a few more years for the first paper to sort of posit an intergalactic communications network that builds on all this technology. It would take more years to get to a satellite.
[00:41:29] And anyhow, now we are 2022. We're having an Internet conversation with audio and video.
[00:41:36] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:41:36] Amy Webb: We're nowhere near each other. The communications industry is so big. All these economists have tried to calculate the total value of this ecosystem. There's no way to do it. The only way to really calculate the value is to do it in reverse to see what we would lose.
[00:41:52] We are at the Checkering Hall phase right now of synthetic biology, which is to say the technology exists, it works, but it hasn't scaled yet. Now, is it going to take 20 or 30 years to scale? I don't think so. I think we're on a much shorter time horizon and you know, I think it's going to wind up ballooning into this enormous, massive, huge economic juggernaut, the way that some of our other core technologies have.
[00:42:18] Jordan Harbinger: That's sort of my next question, right? In semiconductors, there's Moore's law, right? And I can't remember exactly what it is, but it's like over X number of years, these things have in size and cost, right? Do you know that off the top of your head, by any chance?
[00:42:30] Amy Webb: Yeah. So this is Gordon Moore who was at Intel at the time. So Moore's law, again, posits that with time and it's basically been keeping current that the number of transistors, and you can cram more things into a smaller space and get more power out of it, and that fees come down. So that has, for the most part, continue to hold. There's a version of that in synthetic biology that a guy named, yeah, Rob Carlson came up with and those are called Carlson's curves, but it's the same basic concept.
[00:43:01] Over time, you're going to have much more compute, much more power, and be able to build more things at scale with reduced costs. We're already seeing that happen originally when they sequenced the human genome, it took many years and billions of dollars. You could get a sequence, you know, several years ago for like a thousand dollars. Today, there's now whole genome sequencing. You can go online and basically get your whole genome sequenced for less than the price of a pair of Nike Air Jordans.
[00:43:32] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm.
[00:43:33] Amy Webb: So it's just time and experience and maturation tends to lead to, you know, scale and reduce prices.
[00:43:42] Jordan Harbinger: When we talked on the phone a while ago, I think one of the questions I asked you was about DNA sequencing and we went off on a little bit of a fun tangent about how it's not a great idea to maybe give your DNA to the companies that are doing this. Do you still believe that?
[00:43:56] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:43:57] Jordan Harbinger: Or did I get that right?
[00:43:58] Amy Webb: Yeah. You totally got it, right? Yeah. So the number one holder in the world of genetic data — do you know who it is? Or who would you guess?
[00:44:07] Jordan Harbinger: I don't know, 23andMme or ancestry.com or something like that.
[00:44:11] Amy Webb: So it's China. China holds the most.
[00:44:13] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, that's much scarier in many ways, yeah.
[00:44:17] Amy Webb: Yes. Hashtag agree. China's the number one, followed by — you're absolutely right. 23andMe and ancestry.com. ancestry.com got bought out by Blackrock, I want to say, for a lot of money. Blackrock was not interested in subscribers, like people who were really interested in like looking for their ancestors. What they were buying was all of the stored—
[00:44:41] Jordan Harbinger: Blackstone bought it.
[00:44:42] Amy Webb: —DNA data. Blackstone, okay.
[00:44:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yes.
[00:44:43] Amy Webb: Not Blackrock.
[00:44:44] Jordan Harbinger: I always do that too. Don't worry about it. Yeah.
[00:44:46] Amy Webb: But again, you know, this is a really interesting thing to poke at and really think through. Pre-COVID, I don't think most people were like, "Yeah, totally take my DNA and I'll get some." It's like — I don't know. It reminds me a little bit about of being in college and there was always like a credit card vendor giving out a t-shirt ahead of the big football game.
[00:45:08] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:45:08] Amy Webb: To get people to sign up for it, you get a t-shirt. "Take more debt. We'll give you this colorful shirt that you can wear."
[00:45:15] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm like three sizes too big. Yeah.
[00:45:17] Amy Webb: Yeah. So these prices are coming down so much in the sequencing space. You know, the data are worth so much, so much that at some point it's likely that these companies will just give your data profile for free in exchange for housing your DNA so that they can learn from it. So part of that is like, you know, it's not nefarious necessarily. It's more like you're being monetized and not getting a share back.
[00:45:43] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:45:43] Amy Webb: So like companies are like doing all kinds of research to find new therapeutics, learn new insights. And again, I think that's a good thing. I think that should happen, but what's the social contract. Like it could 23andMe take all of this data and sell it to a third party or what's the cybersecurity protocols. What happens if these companies get breached? That's not like somebody's stealing your email.
[00:46:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:46:07] Amy Webb: Right. So like, what if there was a breach? What if you got biologically doxed? Doxing is when somebody gets ahold of your personal information and publishes it on the web for people to harass you and do whatever else with. Well, what if they publish your genome? There are people — like George Church and others who say, "Take it, it's fine. Do what you will," but there is a security risk here and you don't have to create a deadly virus to make somebody's life absolutely miserable.
[00:46:37] There's also a lot of information that you can tell from somebody's profile. And there's also a lot of possibility for misinformation. There are people who would purport to say, "I can tell you based on your DNA, what your cognitive range is," meaning like how smart you are. That's a hotly contested topic, because what makes somebody smart and how they express those smarts is like related to many different things.
[00:47:03] But let's say that you're actually really smart. You're an expressive, creative, smart person. But according to some schmoe, like your markers put a probability in the lower 50 percentile. That kind of stuff matters in the public. And it creates the swirl of totally unnecessary misinformation, so speaking of tangent.
[00:47:23] Jordan Harbinger: No, but it's scary when you think about that plus authoritarian regime, right? We don't have to necessarily even talk about China. We could talk about a fictional country, or we can just say, let's say North Korea gets it.
[00:47:34] Amy Webb: Mm-hmm.
[00:47:34] Jordan Harbinger: And it's widespread. So everybody who is not going to be that smart, not going to be that great of a producer. They can just say, "You know what? We don't need these people at all. They're going to be a drain on our limited resources."
[00:47:45] Amy Webb: Mm-hmm.
[00:47:46] Jordan Harbinger: And they can do that at birth. And it's like, "Sorry, you can't have this baby. It's not going to be a good citizen." And then that is very dystopian and horrible.
[00:47:55] Amy Webb: It is. It's actually a story that we've read before if anybody's familiar with Huxley, but it's true. These are not totally fictional stories here. And some would say that there's evidence that some of this work to understand cognition and potentially enhance cognitive abilities is being done now in China, which I think we should all find ethically concerning, but also maybe that's a security issue for a lot of countries.
[00:48:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Let's talk about that because I have heard that China is making genetically engineered — what level of truth is there to that? Or in many ways, it almost sounds like, eh, is that more nonsense?
[00:48:31] Amy Webb: I can just speak from my own perspective and the research that I've done. I don't think we will ever know. I lived in Hong Kong. So just before the handover, it wasn't technically China at that point. And I went into China a lot. I also lived in Japan. My take on this is China is very, very cloaked. They're very opaque. So what's actually happening will be challenging to sort out. What we do know is that there are super pigs. They have been developing pigs in part because of the African swine flu that wiped out, I think, three-quarters of China's—
[00:49:04] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:49:05] Amy Webb: —pig population, and they're very reliant on pork. So they've created new pigs, super pigs that can grow faster. They have more muscle meaning, fewer resources. You get a bigger animal that you can consume, and they've been engineered to withstand fluctuations in temperature. So they're more resilient. They've created double or quadruple-muscled police dogs. So there's all kinds of experimentation that's already underway with livestock and animals. And of course, we know about the scientist who reportedly edited using CRISPR embryos that resulted in a live pregnancy in the birth of twins.
[00:49:47] Now, depending on who you talk to, this is a pretty polarizing issue.
[00:49:51] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:49:52] Amy Webb: I know people who will argue adamantly that there was full transparency and all of the parents who were involved in the study knew what they were signing up for and that this was altruistic. And they will quote sources from the Chinese Communist Party.
[00:50:07] Jordan Harbinger: Communist Party, yeah.
[00:50:08] Amy Webb: Who took them on the tour and showed them, revealed everything to them?
[00:50:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That's up there with those people that toured Xinjiang for a YouTube video.
[00:50:16] Amy Webb: Exactly.
[00:50:16] Jordan Harbinger: They're like, "There's no genocide. Look at the people they're dancing in the street, which is totally normal." Yeah.
[00:50:20] Amy Webb: Right. I'm I guess more skeptical or more jaded or much more of a pragmatist. I don't know. I spent a lot of time there. I lived in the region for many years and I just think that's implausible. So what actually got published? The study shows that the twins were edited to be HIV resistant. Now in China, that's that is actually a thing. The stigma against people infected with HIV is horrific, really bad. And it's 2022, this is a manageable condition. It's a big deal for people who have it, but it's not like we ostracize people with HIV but that is not the case in China.
[00:50:59] So one way to look at this is he was a compassionate scientist who was trying to prevent offspring from having to manage through the stigma of potentially being infected with HIV, which seems like a big stretch. The other way to look at this is some of that same research was conducted on mice, same parts of the genome, same areas, and that research was being conducted to see if their cognition could be enhanced. So my question is, was this about reducing susceptibility to HIV AIDS? Was it about that plus cognition enhancement or was this about seeing if they could jack up the IQs of people by two points, five points, 10 points. And again, like IQ measurement is another like mystical, crazy science.
[00:51:49] However, there are studies that show a few five, seven IQ points is the difference between a kid who takes algebra two and a kid who's taking AP calculus. It does matter. And the truth is we'll never know what actually happened. We will never know. They will never be — this is not like the IA EA. It's not like nuclear arms development where you can see from space, who's doing what. This is very opaque. We'll never know. What we do know is that there is a high probability that on this planet right now, there are now enhanced humans and there are analogs like you and me.
[00:52:29] Jordan Harbinger: That is both amazing and incredible and scary in many ways. And not because like, oh no, we don't measure up. But also it just could create such a huge divide over time. Let's throw the national security implications out for a second, but it would be truly unfair in so many ways if we were just doing this, let's say even inside the United States. I think in the book you call it a genetic trust fund.
[00:52:53] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:52:53] Jordan Harbinger: Only it's much harder to overcome, right? Because we've seen trust funds kids screw things up and we'll see enhanced humans screw things up too, by throwing away their potential. But it really is something you almost can't squander. It would be very difficult to do if done correctly. And it would compound seriously over generations, but it really does seem unavoidable. Back to national security, who doesn't want their country's offspring to have this kind of advantage?
[00:53:19] Amy Webb: It seems like a weird concern. There's so much to be concerned about. But I think that's a form of bio escalation.
[00:53:26] Jordan Harbinger: Cyber biological arms race, right?
[00:53:28] Amy Webb: Yeah. Which we really don't want. Because what's going to happen? If it turns out that China is actively experimenting to enhance, what are we going to do? That puts the rest of the world in a really tricky position.
[00:53:43] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:53:43] Amy Webb: You know, I could think of a couple of ways that might play out in the US. Maybe there's like a WPA that—
[00:53:52] Jordan Harbinger: WPA?
[00:53:53] Amy Webb: So like during FDR, there was this sort of public works program to sort of get people to volunteer and serve their country. And I could imagine something like that, but serving your country means submitting to enhancement or agreeing to have your children enhanced to keep pace. You know, there was a lot of, sort of galvanizing activity around this, the end of the World War II and Cold War. I could also see this causing like an all-out civil war in the United States. Because we're really unlike other places in the world. We can't have conversations with each other about life, where it comes from what to do with it, how it ends. We really have made that a polarizing issue.
[00:54:40] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:54:40] Amy Webb: And again, it comes down to certainty. Everybody's so certain of what they believe that they don't make space to listen to what other people believe. And listening doesn't mean you have to agree. It does mean that you're willing to be open-minded. And if you have a change of heart, that's okay. You know, we're not really set up for that in this country. So if we wind up in a situation where there, there is a country or a cluster of people, or some group of uber billionaires who go seize-the-day out in the ocean where the laws don't apply to them and they're creating a super race of people. You know, I think that's actually going to divide the United States, not bring us together. Yeah, I don't know. I know I'm describing like an apocalyptic hellscape of doom, but well—
[00:55:26] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, possibly it also just seems like not only could this be the plot of Jason Bourne film, but also it just seems really very possible that there's also exists in the United States and it's just very secret. And the people who have these enhancements don't even know or I mean, I could be—
[00:55:44] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[00:55:44] Jordan Harbinger: —ridiculous. I don't know.
[00:55:45] Amy Webb: To truly do the types of enhancements that we're talking about, this stuff is years off, many years off. What is likelier to happen in the nearer term is again, just optionality in the US. So one of the things in the book has to do with procreation. There is a way to create a stem cell. There's a way to use a stem cell and sort of make that become any other type of cell it wants to when it grows up. What that means is you could turn a skin cell into a sperm or an egg. The implications there are that a single person could create an embryo with just their own genetic material. It wouldn't be a clone.
[00:56:27] Jordan Harbinger: I don't know why that's so sad, but it, somehow that just seems like really
[00:56:30] Amy Webb: well sad somehow. Yeah. I mean it does, but I also have a, you know, I've got some friends who wanted to start a family and just didn't have a partner and they have to go out and find donor material, which is like really hard to do.
[00:56:44] Yeah. I can see that it also opens up the possibility that you could have multiple parents. You know, you could have a three-parent child or a 10-parent child. If you watched the expanse or read the books, I don't think I'm spoiling anything. Because it's revealed right away. You know, there's a character that has a whole bunch of parents.
[00:57:00] It's just different. It's different than how we think of family today. I don't think that's bad. I think it gives us some options. And again, I think
[00:57:09] Jordan Harbinger: weren't humans back in the day, parented by the whole tribe. Anyway, isn't that kind of a thing. So it's like now you just have genetic material instead of them not knowing who the father is. It's not that different.
[00:57:18] Amy Webb: Yeah, but again, like it just constructs. We're just going to have to be comfortably uncomfortable. And I think that's going to be hard. I think it's going to be hard. And, and if China, if it comes out and I don't know how it would, but if it comes out that they are doing enhancement, which we know is happening with animals, turns out its people. My concern is that we're not going to be able to come to the table and have a reasonable conversation because politics and arguing is going to get in the way,
[00:57:47] Jordan Harbinger: Which means the military is going to be someplace that can compartmentalize this in a very secret way. Which is like a kind of another, not great for science when it's like, okay, we have to keep this really secret and not tell people who might not like it and not talk about it publicly. That's just never a good recipe. That's just like dot, dot, dot, CIA, extra — what is it called? Extraordinary rendition centers. Like that's you end up with that kind of stuff.
[00:58:10] Amy Webb: Yeah. And again, like if we step away from what does life look like in the future?
[00:58:15] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:58:16] Amy Webb: There are the much more real potential problems of things like cyber bio malware. So the way that synbio works is you still need computers or developing code instead of ones and zeros, it's ACTG.
[00:58:31] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:58:31] Amy Webb: You have to write the code, you have to edit the code, you send the code to a printer, you send it to a manufacturer. And it's been proven more than once that there are vulnerabilities in that system and you could create totally benign biological code. Get back a blob, like a blob of something that's not very interesting, right? But you could inject malware in the process, meaning you could send off a benign sample and get back a potent virus, a deadly virus.
[00:58:59] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:59:00] Amy Webb: Now, luckily that hasn't happened yet, but there are, you know, it's not like human scientists are standing with a pipette and individual test tubes, all the stuff relies on AI, the cloud, 5G on tech, and tech is insecure. The number of old-school phishing email attacks is up like 51 percent Q1. So there are vulnerabilities that I think are much more pressing that we have to really think through and prioritize.
[00:59:29] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Amy Webb. We'll be right back.
[00:59:33] This episode is sponsored in part by Pluralsight. If you lead or manage a software team, you know that setting your team up for success, isn't easy. Employee turnover, the speed of innovation, timeline delays, and security concerns are constantly clouding our vision. Leading technology teams around the world trust Pluralsight to bring skill development and engineering insights to the forefront of the developer experience increasing productivity, efficiency, satisfaction, and retention. It's the clarity teams need to tackle mission-critical projects, drive cloud transformation, or simply ship scalable and secure code. Harness the collective power of hindsight, foresight, and insight with Pluralsight. Check them out today at pluralsight.com/vision.
[01:00:10] This episode is also sponsored by Peloton. I'm pretty disciplined. I still could use a little motivation here and there to keep up the consistency day after day, especially look, I got work to do. I got kids to play with. It's hard to fit anything else into my day. Jen and I have had the Peloton bike for over two years and Peloton makes it easy to work out consistently because the classes are super fun. The music is banging. The instructors are world class. Jen loves Cody Rigsby, kind of sick of hearing about Cody Rigsby, but she loves him. He's hilarious. He really is. He will make you feel like he's your BFF. Telling you, and I quote, "You're a hot steaming plate of fajitas at a packed Chili's grabbing everyone's attention." Take a 10-minute upper body stretch between calls or a 40-minute run or cycle class before bed. There's also strength training, yoga, dance cardio it's all available 24/7.
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[01:02:28] Now for the rest of my conversation with Amy Webb.
[01:02:33] This stuff will keep you up at night. Our episode with Rob Reid, he talks about having DNA printers in high school labs or college labs. And what happens if somebody who knows what they're doing, designs super, super contagious, and also super, super deadly influenza or some other pandemic, and goes kind of the terrorist route and just releases it, or even accidentally gets infected with it and spreads it all over the place. That stuff will keep you up at night. It's just the dual-use dilemma, right? When good tech ends up being used for bad things like chemical or biological weapons, and sometimes it happens by accident.
[01:03:06] Amy Webb: Right. Now, to be fair, there's a lot of tech in our daily lives. That could be dangerous if it's misused. This ruler that I'm holding up. If I stabbed you in the neck with this enough times, it could kill you. And this plastic ruler could therefore be a deadly weapon. So I think we have to approach this with some amount of just common sense. Anything can be misused. I think the trick with this biology stuff is that biology tends to be self-sustaining. There's usually not an off switch.
[01:03:35] So part of the concern here is that there is research that's been done to try to make things more virulent. So I think it was 2002, some researchers from Stony Brook University in New York, State of New York at Stony Brook. I think. It was SUNY. It was just a project funded through DARPA and basically what they were trying to figure out was could they recreate smallpox.
[01:04:02] Jordan Harbinger: Oh gosh.
[01:04:02] Amy Webb: Was it smallpox or polio? Hang on a second.
[01:04:05] Jordan Harbinger: Either one is really scary, smallpox especially.
[01:04:08] Amy Webb: Yeah. Just like using off-the-shelf materials and the answer was, yeah, they were totally able to do that. The point of this was to sort of help the greater research community, wake up and be like, "Hey, maybe we need some controls," but there was a different project done later, about a decade later. And that researcher who was in Europe was working with H5N1, which is the avian bird flu. Before SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID, this was the deadliest virus to hit humanity since the Spanish flu in 1918. And it was passed between birds and the experiment that he was doing was in his words, not mine, "To mutate the hell out of this, to make it airborne and passable between humans," and it's like—
[01:05:00] Jordan Harbinger: For why?
[01:05:01] Amy Webb: For what purpose? Okay. So this is something called gain-of-function research, GOF, gain of function. And when I've heard people talk about it, their reason for wanting to do the research is that if they can figure out the worst possible ways that a virus will mutate, that will allow us to be prepared. And my feeling is like, we're still living with a deadly virus mutating constantly. And we were able to sequence SARS-CoV-2 in basically a handful of hours.
[01:05:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Like maybe wait until we have the problem, instead of being like, "Look, I found the most deadly thing—"
[01:05:37] Amy Webb: Right.
[01:05:37] Jordan Harbinger: —ever. It's already ready for when it gets out." And it's like, "Dude, it didn't exist before you did that."
[01:05:41] Amy Webb: Exactly.
[01:05:42] Jordan Harbinger: Why make it?
[01:05:43] Amy Webb: Right. And like how many possible simulations are you going to be able to build you? There's too many potential factors in play. So I don't think there's any reason to do this research at all. You know, my concern is that, again, the vast majority of people in this space that are working in synbio are not, they're not doing any of this, right? They are doing things like, "Hey, could we make a tomato that doesn't rot after you pick it for a week?"
[01:06:11] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:06:11] Amy Webb: Can we make a leather jacket-looking thing out of mushrooms? Can we make beer that doesn't give you a hangover? It's that kind of stuff. There are other researchers who are engineering viruses for a different reason. To deliver medication, right? A virus is just a container for code.
[01:06:27] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[01:06:28] Amy Webb: So viruses could be created to target cancer, for example, right? But there is the specter of what-if because we've already seen it before somebody creates a dangerous use for these things. What then? We have to be aware and be thinking about it.
[01:06:46] Jordan Harbinger: I do like the tomato example. That's a gain of freshness research, I guess. Huh? Dad jokes, I can't help it.
[01:06:54] Amy Webb: No, it's perfect. Perfect. I love that.
[01:06:56] Jordan Harbinger: You can use that one too.
[01:06:58] You mentioned that biology is self-sustaining. Okay. That makes sense, right? It's a living thing that you create. We discussed earlier specialized microbes that could eat plastic in water. And I think in the book you mentioned something that could turn waste water into drinking water, which would be great. What happens if those things escape, right? I guess you'd have to think about how to make it, so they're not always self-sustaining or they—
[01:07:19] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[01:07:20] Jordan Harbinger: They're only active when there's another ingredient nearby. So you're dumping that in the area where you want it to eat the plastic. I don't know. I guess those are solutions — because the last thing you want is, "Oh, these things are everywhere now. And so now anything that's plastic, that's touching water, like hoses and pipes and residential infrastructure is now also getting eaten by these organisms that we made to get rid of a trash patch in the ocean.
[01:07:40] Amy Webb: Yeah. So this is the sort of law of unintended consequences side of things. Just after the dust bowl, there was an enterprising guy who was like, "We need to rewild these large swaths of the country that have lost vegetation and happened upon this plant, that seemed to be pretty drought resistant and hearty, and would help make things green again. This plant is called kudzu and initially, it got planted and it was like helping things out. Fast forward to today, you drive anywhere up and down the 95 quarter on the east coast—
[01:08:18] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:08:18] Amy Webb: —it looks like there's some monster in the summer. Just vines everywhere, choking out the rest of the vegetation. So, you know, that's a good framing to think through how edits with the best possible intentions could have undesirable consequences. I know that there is research being done into, to sort of like a biological off switch. And if things did start to grow too much, maybe there would be a way to sort of get them to stop growing.
[01:08:46] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:08:46] Amy Webb: That wouldn't involve a weed killer or something like that. Again, this is very early days. And I think what I think is heartening is that I know people are thinking about that and trying to work through it.
[01:08:59] Jordan Harbinger: The geoengineering stuff kind of freaks me out just because it's so hard to predict, right? Ecosystems look like they're all perfectly balanced because for millions of years ago, they weren't and then something got extinct and died. Like people go, "Oh, well, look how in harmony everything is when humans don't mess with it." It's like, "Well, yeah, but we had different types—" and we know this now of different types of — are they called hominids? Like we humans lived in concert with other earlier humans. They just all died. We outcompeted them. They're dead now and extinct. And so we don't want to do that to plants that we use or animals that we need or other things that keep other things in balance because we can easily mess this up. Like, "Hey, there's no more plastic in the ocean and nowhere else for that matter either. And frankly, you probably shouldn't ingest that because it's going to get to your plastic heart valve and that's going to go now."
[01:09:45] Amy Webb: Right.
[01:09:46] Jordan Harbinger: And it's just like, that could go horribly wrong if we aren't careful with it. And it's impossible seemingly to think of all the potential outcomes of something like that. So the best thing to be able to do would be to unplug it if you can.
[01:09:59] Amy Webb: Yeah. I mean, again, this is where I wish we could think exponentially. And act incrementally all the time. These are sort of opposing forces.
[01:10:10] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:10:10] Amy Webb: But it's what you need to both have a vision of the future and work toward that north star of what you're trying to build. What's better for society for the planet for everybody, but be willing to sort of make incremental decisions on the path, getting there, which might mean it's sometimes changing course very slightly.
[01:10:28] When it comes to geoengineering, again, this is a place where China has already moved ahead, ahead of a big CCP meeting. They cloud seated, they made it rain for the purpose of getting the smog out of Beijing. It's going to be challenging to get everybody to the table, to make some agreements about some possibilities. On the other hand, do we have a choice?
[01:10:52] COP26 ended. That was the big environmental global meeting without people walking away, feeling like they accomplished what they needed to. And that's because India and China are enormous economists whose economies for the moment rely a lot on coal.
[01:11:08] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:11:08] Amy Webb: And we live in a globalized situation, globalization forces, many countries to rely on India and China. And you can't say to them, "Hey, let's stop producing all that CO2 without giving them a solution or changing our price structures or lots of things."
[01:11:24] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Like we want you to still make all our stuff, but you just can't do it using the way that you produce energy now. You have to come up with a new solution. See you guys later.
[01:11:31] Amy Webb: Right. So I'm not trying to be a fatalist here, but the reality is that we're not moving fast enough to deal with the problems we have. So rather than trying to get everybody to agree, to cutting like CO2 emissions, there's a constellation of cool science and tech out there. Can't we try a whole bunch of things while still trying to cut emissions? So that's some of the geoengineering stuff and small-scale experiments. Could we engineer a leap? Could we think of the CO2 that we have as a feedstock that we just have too much of?
[01:12:01] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:12:01] Amy Webb: And have like a bargain basement fire sale on all the CO2 and like engineer leaves that can suck more of that CO2 out of the air and excrete beneficial compounds that would help the topsoil. Those experiments are underway, but it makes people feel uneasy.
[01:12:16] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:12:16] Amy Webb: You know?
[01:12:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Yeah. I like the idea of like a grass that grows all over and just hoovers up carbon and shoves it into the ground.
[01:12:23] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[01:12:23] Jordan Harbinger: We did a whole episode on geoengineering episode 348, and I got a ton of emails about stuff from experts in all these different fields where this guy was positing ideas. And he's like, "This is such a bad idea. Here's all the things that could go wrong." So I was up for like three days just not sleeping because I was like, "Please tell me that they're not going to try to do this." Because whenever you come up with what sounds like an awesome solution, like that grass solution, somebody who's, I don't know, horticulturalist is going to go, "Okay. Sounds good but here's all the problems with that." Then you go, "Okay, well," like you said, "it's so hard to get it right."
[01:12:56] Amy Webb: Right. Then what you do is the next step. So I think the place that we're as a society getting stuck is somebody's got an idea. Somebody else says, "But, but, but, but," right? And then, there's arguments. What would be better is I've got this idea, a whole bunch of people say, "Oh, have you thought about it this way." You could have the "but, but, but" people, or maybe this is the other way to think about it. And that leads to a series of conversations and incremental improvements.
[01:13:25] We've kind of forgotten about the, like let's argue with each other productively for the purpose of getting those incremental improvements in the idea. If we were talking about anything else, if we were doing product design, that's what would happen. A normal product design cycle begins with idea. You have a design charette, you've got people arguing back and forth, and you go through an iterative process until you get a product that people want aka your iPhone, right?
[01:13:51] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:13:52] Amy Webb: But with this other geoengineering editing humans, cocker spaniel kebabs. We don't go through that iterative process, instead what we wind up with is an explosion, an incendiary process, not iterative, where instead of the conversation being productive as it moves along, it becomes like this entrenched supernova that at some point, you know, explodes into horrible.
[01:14:18] There's another way to do it. There's another way to have the conversation. I invite people to disagree with me vehemently, as long as they're willing to do that in service of productive thinking. Disagree, let's argue. And now let's move on to the next part of this conversation and see where we get.
[01:14:34] Jordan Harbinger: It's an incredible future. That's just coming at us seemingly really fast. And I know, I know you said this is long-horizon technology. I get that. But what is the timeline for most of what we discussed today? Are we talking about 30 years from now? Or is this going to sneak up on us and be here in like a decade?
[01:14:49] Amy Webb: Yeah, I mean, I don't know, but let me tell you why. We have sort of a model with three horizons, H one, two and three, which describe relative near term, midterm, and longer term.
[01:14:59] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[01:14:59] Amy Webb: Over the next, you know, 15 to 20 years, I can tell you generally speaking what our model shows and then explain to you why that could all be wrong. Generally speaking things like new uses for messenger RNA, new types of vaccines, lots of new diagnostics, whole genome sequencing, nearer term, things like self-healing paint, stronger materials, nylon, you know, alternative to leather materials that would be horizon two. The third one is synthetic meat at scale, cultured made at scale, or biofuel has like long been the holy grail, which I don't know if it's ever going to happen, but it's longer horizon stuff.
[01:15:43] Now, let me tell you why I don't know the answer is because this is a space where there's a lot of still sort of basic research being done, and there is no way to schedule an R and D breakthrough, right? You can't do that on a quarterly schedule. So there's that a lot of this work sort of is adjacent to what's happening in artificial intelligence. So as computational systems, pattern recognition, deep mind, which is doing all kinds of crazy things under the Google umbrella, as all that advances that bring synbio along with it. So that's another piece.
[01:16:17] Investment is another huge piece. I don't know if we're going to wind up in a recession or if it's stagflation. I don't know what's happening on the horizon exactly. But I do know that in the investment sector, there's a lot of very concerned venture capital types who are confused and feeling less certain about their investments and some limited partners are calling back their investments. That creates a level of uncertainty.
[01:16:45] And at the same time, there are some companies, there's a company called Altos Labs, which has huge names attached. What they're trying to do is to figure out how to reverse aging using some of this technology, reprogramming life, right? They've raised three billion dollars.
[01:17:01] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:17:02] Amy Webb: I don't even know what valuation on three — they don't have a product out. They've just got a collection of very smart people. So there's so much volatility and there's so much impact that for me to give you an accurate prediction at this point of when the inflections are. Like, that is not a model that I would be able to build. So it's fine. We don't have to know exactly when, we just have to be ready to observe those inflections as they're happening, but generally speaking, Because I know this is what people want to know — you know, sometime in the next 10 years.
[01:17:33] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, that's so fast. That's so fast. That's really incredible. Because I think people, when they hear about this stuff, the reason I ask is they're like, "Oh yeah, 50 years from now when I'm dead, we might have the ability to grow—" No, you're going to see this crap in the supermarket in 10 or 15 years potentially, right?
[01:17:47] Amy Webb: And maybe the other way to think about it is you won't be dead in 15 years.
[01:17:51] Jordan Harbinger: Hopefully not.
[01:17:52] Amy Webb: Or 50 years. A lot of the excitement around this technology is — you know, there's some research into looking at cells as like biological DVRs. If you can sort of record and watch what's happening in a cell, can you figure out at what point you can reverse the aging process? There's all this work being done to reprogram cells so that they age slower or not at all, or some of the sort of zombie material that floats around. That's not quite dead and causes some problems that doesn't happen anymore. I think we're going to have some optionality on how long our lives are and that's coming too. It'd be interesting to think about living very long lives, where you are relatively healthy and with it, and you have a very long happy life and like one really bad day at the end, right? Versus what we have now which is power in youth and then suffering.
[01:18:46] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:18:46] Amy Webb: For a lot of people.
[01:18:48] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That stuff, the cognitive decline and all that stuff is it really freaks me out. It's just really, really so awful to see and up close with your own family and then think like, "Oh my god, I'm going to end up like that possibly. That's horrible." Do you have time to tell me about personalized bio weapons? Because that's crap is — speaking of things that keep you up at night is so interesting.
[01:19:07] Amy Webb: Yeah. So if you had somebody's whole genome, you could figure out ways to tinker with it. Not that it kills the person, but just makes them super uncomfortable or inhibits them in some way or just gives them chronic diarrhea, stuff like that.
[01:19:26] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[01:19:26] Amy Webb: And at the World Economic Forum in Davos, so this was two years ago. There was an artist collective that shortly after created a website and auctioned off items like used coffee cups and forks and things from the people who were there—
[01:19:44] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, that's so weird.
[01:19:45] Amy Webb: —to anybody who wanted them. Now, you know, they could have been making all of this up.
[01:19:49] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[01:19:49] Amy Webb: But having been there myself, It's very hard to get into the sort of inner circle of what's happening. And staff are very well screened, but there's always a possibility that you've got some leak somewhere and yeah, you leave stuff all over the place. You know, I'm constantly drinking coffee. I drink my coffee, I put my coffee cup down, and somebody takes it. I don't know who's taking it. So it is possible to scrape somebody's DNA from detritus.
[01:20:15] If you were able to do that and you could sequence the person, then what might you be able to do? Well, again, like you could create a virus. Somebody could have created a virus that gave a president, just chronic stomach cramps, diarrhea, some type of problem. That doesn't kill them, but it makes it hard for them to lead hard for them to make decisions. And again, this may not seem so catastrophic except that if this happens to a CEO or a board of directors member, there there's a fiduciary responsibility. It could have an economic consequence. It unlocks a fresh new hell where biological ransomware exists.
[01:20:54] Jordan Harbinger: Like, "You're going to have diarrhea for the rest of your life, unless you pay me some of that Dogecoin, Elon."
[01:20:58] Amy Webb: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Or like, "I will make your hair fall out."
[01:21:03] Jordan Harbinger: Again?
[01:21:03] Amy Webb: Pick your celebrity. Yeah. Yeah.
[01:21:07] Jordan Harbinger: "You thought the first time was bad, Elon. Try the second time. This time you can't put it back in."
[01:21:11] Amy Webb: Yeah. I mean again, like, is it totally improbable? No. Is it around the corner? Probably not, but like did Emmanuel Macron tell Putin, "I'm not doing a COVID sample for you, bro, because it's you. You know, like why would I want you to have my DNA?"
[01:21:31] Jordan Harbinger: That's interesting.
[01:21:31] Amy Webb: Yeah. And if it had been pre-COVID, I think we would be much more comfortable saying, "Yeah, I'm never giving my DNA to somebody, you know, obviously," but we live in COVID times and like a couple of weeks ago, I had to have a PCR, I just proved that I was PCR negative. I had to go to a guy in a van in Dumbo, like in Brooklyn, just like literally a guy in a white van — I show up and he is like, "Okay, let me take your sample." And I'm like, "Who are you? I have a latex allergy. Are those latex gloves?" He doesn't even know what I'm talking about.
[01:22:09] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:22:09] Amy Webb: Like the security protocols is what I'm trying to say. Here are quite squishy.
[01:22:13] Jordan Harbinger: Leave something to be desired, yeah.
[01:22:15] Amy Webb: Exactly. But we've arrived at this point in time when we're like, "Yeah, I'll go." I need to get into this event. "Hey, schmoe guy in the van by the river. Yeah, shove that thing up my nose and take my DNA."
[01:22:29] Jordan Harbinger: God, that is incredibly disturbing. I mean, in all likelihood, he just threw it away after getting the test results, but there's—
[01:22:36] Amy Webb: I'm sure he did.
[01:22:37] Jordan Harbinger: There's no way to know. There's just no way to know.
[01:22:39] Amy Webb: No, but the point is, the bigger point that I'm making here is that we're all becoming desensitized to being skeptical. I mean, and we should take tests. I'm not saying don't take tests. I'm not saying don't practice good, safe health habits. What I am saying is it's okay to take the test and also say, "Hey, by the way, where is this going? Who's got the data. How are they being stored?" The tech is not going to know that, you know, those answers, but we should be asking them it's okay to ask questions like that.
[01:23:08] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, they might know if they throw it in an incinerator right after they take the—
[01:23:12] Amy Webb: Yeah.
[01:23:12] Jordan Harbinger: —results for you. I mean, that's possible. And they, they should know something. Like somebody there should know something like that. The guy in the van, maybe not, he probably just drops it off somewhere, but everybody else. Yeah. Well, either way, your point is well taken.
[01:23:21] Amy Webb, thank you so much. Really, really interesting stuff. I wish we had two more hours, but this was incredible. There's so much in the book like this and of course, I'll link to that in the show notes as well.
[01:23:31] Amy Webb: Thank you so much. It was a fun conversation. Fun and scary but that was fun.
[01:23:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yep, fun and scary. That's the best kind of fun.
[01:23:36] By the way, you all as we mentioned during the show, here is a trailer for our episode with Rob Reid also on synthetic biology but a little bit more dark than this one.
[01:23:39] Rob Reid: The terrifying thing is that COVID is pretty damn benign compared to what could have easily happened this time around or what could very easily happen next time around particularly if the next bug is maliciously designed. Society just produces a certain small, but terrifying percentage of people every year, cross countries, cross societies who for whatever reason, go to such a dark place that they become suicidal mass murderers and their death toll is limited only by the weapons that they have. Technology is the force multiplier. The 1918 flu virus, which killed at a much, much, much greater scale than COVID and the smallpox genome. Both of those are online and anybody could find them within a short number of minutes. The time would soon come where somebody could take that and re-animate that. And something which scares the bejesus out of me, which is an influenza virus not a Coronavirus is H5N1 flu that kills 50 to 60 percent of the people that it infects. Two independent research groups, one in Holland, and one in Wisconsin, took it upon themselves and they basically made a capable of aerosolized transmission through the breath. No lab is secure enough to keep this stuff from coming out. And this is a pathogen that could quite literally topple civilization if it's contagious enough. If the lights shut off on a countrywide basis, after a shockingly small number of days, civilization starts to teeter and eventually topple.
[01:25:09] Jordan Harbinger: That was episode 244, Rob Reid, synthetic biology for medicine and for murder.
[01:25:20] So these kinds of conversations, I love having these because they bring up all sorts of new questions that we have never seen before, who will own new forms of life that are created. Are we going to patent them? Should we edit our children? Should we bring back extinct animals? Is that going to be Jurassic Park style? I mean, humans have destroyed over a million species. Do we bring back just the ones we destroyed or do we bring back ones that died a few hundred thousand or millions of years before we got here? I don't know. Doesn't sound like a great idea, but who knows what's really going to happen here, right?
[01:25:50] Also those DNA printers, we did an episode with Rob Reid. I think that was episode 244. Those can be used to counter bio weapons in the field. We can print vaccines or medications right on the spot for quick manufacturing and distribution. Rob, of course, talked about the dark side of this, printable pandemics diseases episode 244. That is the trailer you just heard, by the way. Also regular medicine, as opposed to vaccines and other treatments, bespoke treatments based on your condition, and also based on your genetic makeup. Devices that can monitor us in real time, something implanted. Something we swallow ingestible units that beam health info to systems something on your phone, perhaps that can analyze our gut biome, make health recommendations, what you're supposed to eat today, what you're not supposed to eat that day. Of course, they can also detect internal conditions, such as bleeding, uh, stomach acid, make sure your medication is on track. And unfortunately, this device or your insurance company can spy on you. Or you could just make sure you're adhering to your diet.
[01:26:50] Speaking of which maybe I do want some human brain sashimi. Don't knock it until you tried it, right? Also CRISPR opens up a whole heck of a lot of options we could prevent or even correct genetic diseases that may be lethal or at least very inconvenient. And we would have no side effects like we do with medication. We'd be really getting to the root cause of a disease as in, we're just going to turn this gene off. So you never even get Parkinson's or whatever. You won't have to worry about mitigating it, catching it early. You're just never going to get it in the first place. That is absolutely incredible.
[01:27:24] All of this cognitive decline stuff, I don't know about you guys, that stuff terrifies me, right? I work with my brain. I read, I write. That's why, when I hear about brain fog with COVID or getting older and having that type of thing happen, it just scares the crap out of me. It's one major reason why I started working on my sleep and my fitness so much over the past few years, just to try and stave that stuff off, but imagine knowing that you are not going to get it because you turned that gene off in your body years ago, unbelievable.
[01:27:53] Also what about little nanobots that can do CRISPR and gene editing inside the body to replace cells and organs, like eyes that are needed for sight. What if you just changed something or created something inside your body that was never there when you were born or broken in some way or injured? Unfortunately, of course, we can also have real-life chimeras. We could splice human genes into that of apes or monkeys and create super-intelligent species. Almost literally like Planet of the Apes, not sure how ethical that is, would be pretty rough, but is definitely going to be possible on the horizon.
[01:28:27] Or what if we do this to ourselves? What if we splice hummingbird genes into human genes and we could create humans that can see like hummingbirds, superhuman senses are right on the horizon with this as well. We talked about that with David Eagleman, episode 655, that was just recent. David talked about adding technology to humans to make us have super senses, like the ability to feel data that's collected from the Internet. That's sort of cybernetic, but this, when we're editing our own genes, this would be like a piece of biotechnology that's added into us, maybe even at birth or possibly even beforehand. This is truly X-Men territory.
[01:29:04] By the way, I know we talked about China and people have been emailing me lately. Like, "Ah, come on, man. You can't do one episode without throwing shade on the Chinese Communist Party. And on that note, I recommend checking out the YouTube channels of Laowhy86 and ADVChina for lots of great info on China and the Chinese Communist Party and why we should all be paying attention to what they are doing.
[01:29:24] Look, I am, obviously against a lot of those policies and authoritarianism in general. I especially enjoyed Laowhy's recent video on the CCP attempting to pay him to post propaganda on his YouTube channel. Really insightful, gives you a look behind the curtain, quite a bit of scary stuff in there as well. We'll link to that in the show notes for this episode, of course.
[01:29:45] Big thank you once again to Amy Webb. Links to all things Amy will be in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com. Please use our website links if you buy books from any guest on the show, it does help support the show. Transcripts are in the show notes. Videos are up on YouTube. Advertisers, deals, and discount codes. All at jordanharbinger.com/deals. And please consider supporting those who support this show. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on Twitter and Instagram or connect with me on LinkedIn.
[01:30:11] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems, software, and tiny habits over in our Six-Minute Networking course. And that course is free. It's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. I'm teaching you how to dig that well before you get thirsty and hey, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you.
[01:30:32] This show is created in association with Podcast One. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who would benefit from this particular episode or loves futurism, really interested in synthetic biology, or just biology in general, share this one with them. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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