Rob Reid (@Rob_Reid) is a tech entrepreneur, early-stage tech investor, author of After On: A Novel of Silicon Valley, and host of the After On Podcast.
What We Discuss with Rob Reid:
- The potential for synthetic biology to be leveraged by nihilistic mass murderers to wipe out millions.
- The potential for synthetic biology to be leveraged by altruistic medical pioneers to save millions.
- What CRISPR is and how its eventual availability to hobbyists may ensure there’s a mad scientist on every block.
- Why the future of synthetic biology may be exponentially more dangerous to humanity than the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War.
- What we can start doing now to prepare for this future and minimize its risks while reaping its rewards.
- And much more…
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Lately we can’t even turn on the news without bracing for the next disaster. Whether it’s a mass-shooting, terrorism, or some other catastrophe of our own making, it’s pretty clear that there’s a small percentage of the population that just wants to kill as many people as possible before they leave this world. Fortunately, most nihilistic killers like these don’t have access to nuclear weapons. But what if they had access to something equally dangerous? What if nearly everybody did?
On this episode we talk with science fiction author, tech entrepreneur, and fellow podcaster Rob Reid, who recently spoke at TED about synthetic biology — a relatively new field of gene-splicing and genetic engineering that is expensive today, but on the cusp of being affordable to hobbyists soon. It’s an exciting notion, but what happens if one of these hobbyists turns out to be a nihilistic mass murderer in waiting whose ambition is to create a devastating superbug and wipe out millions of people? Rob addresses this and so much more in this simultaneously terrifying and fascinating episode. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, ROB REID!
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Resources from This Episode:
- How Synthetic Biology Could Wipe out Humanity — And How We Can Stop It by Rob Reid, TED 2019
- After On: A Novel of Silicon Valley by Rob Reid
- After On Podcast
- Rob Reid’s Website
- Rob Reid at Facebook
- Rob Reid at Twitter
- Chenpeng Village Primary School Stabbing, Wikipedia
- Sandy Hook Shooting: What Happened? CNN
- The Disturbing History of Pilots Who Deliberately Crash Their Own Planes, Vox
- MH370 News: Thai and Malaysian Military ‘Ignored’ Jet for Surprise Reason, Express
- ‘None of Us Can Get Out’ Kursk Sailor Wrote, The New York Times
- Pig to Human Heart Transplants ‘Possible Within Three Years’, The Guardian
- Questions and Answers about CRISPR, Broad Institute
- CRISPR Enters Its First Human Clinical Trials, Science News
- Scientists Brace for Media Storm Around Controversial Flu Studies, Science
- The Human Genome Project, NHGRI
- 5 Services That Will Sequence Your DNA, Mashable
- Over 50 Years of Moore’s Law, Intel
- Carlson Curve, Revolvy
- The Fermi Paradox, Wait But Why
- Some Studies in Machine Learning Using the Game of Checkers by Arthur L. Samuel, IBM Journal of Research and Development
- Aum Shinrikyo: Images from the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Attack, BBC
- Man Who Sold F-35 Secrets to China Pleads Guilty, Vice
- Biodefence Researcher Linked to Anthrax Attacks, Nature
- Breaking Bad
- Naval Ravikant | End Games, After On Podcast 44
- Harnessing Synthetic Biology for Kelp Forest Conservation, Journal of Phycology
- Dark Sky
- Synthetic Biology and the Rise of the ‘Spider-Goats’, The Guardian
- Termite Gut Microbes Extract Clean Energy from Coal, Tech Xplore
- How to Apply the Concept of Umwelt in the Evolutionary Study of Cognition, Frontiers in Psychology
- Real Martians: How to Protect Astronauts from Space Radiation on Mars, NASA
Transcript for Rob Reid | Synthetic Biology for Medicine and Murder (Episode 244)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.
[00:00:20] Now, lately, we can't even turn on the news without clenching every sphincter in our body just bracing for the next disaster, whether it's a mass shooting, terrorism, or some other catastrophe of our own making. It's pretty clear that there's a small percentage of the population that just wants to kill as many people as possible before they leave this world. Fortunately, most nihilistic killers like these don't have access to nuclear weapons, but what if they had access to something equally dangerous? What if everybody did? Today on the show, we're talking to my friend Rob Reid. He's a science-fiction writer and recently spoke at Ted about synthetic biology. SynBio is the relatively new field of gene-splicing and genetic engineering. We're doing this all the time, but it's expensive and complex. Today we'll discuss the coming advances in this technology and how they can be used to create a superbug that could wipe out millions of people and how this technology might soon be available to almost any academic institution or even the garage of one of your neighbors. This episode is terrifying and fascinating at the same time, and I hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed creating it for you.
[00:01:26] By the way, my guests for the show, they come from the network. I work pretty hard, but only for a few minutes per day. Expanding and maintaining that network. I'm teaching you how to do the same for personal and professional reasons. Of course, go to jrdanharbinger.com/course. It's all free. There's no credit card BS, there's no drama. I just think the more people that have this information, the better. That's at jordanharbinger.com/course and it takes just a few minutes per day. In the meantime, here's Rob Reid.
[00:01:52] Let's start off on a positive note. A certain percentage of the population are suicidal nihilists to killers.
Rob Reid: [00:01:58] Yeah, that's, that's as good as it's going to get in this conversation.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:02] Tell us about kind of where this went because I watched your TED Talk and I went, “Okay, this is beyond interesting and scary.” And your sci-fi writers. So, I thought, ”How true is all this?” And then you're like, you know, I start doing research and it's like, ”Oh, he’s not just making this up.”
Rob Reid: [00:02:16] Yeah, I footnoted the bejesus out of that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:22] I don't know if we have to prove that there's a percentage of the population that is suicidal now in particular.
Rob Reid: [00:02:26] Now, not this week, in particular, I don't know when this is going to go up, but we're obviously sitting here in the immediate wake of two horrible mass murders here in the United States. I started the TED Talk with a little bit of a ghost story to get people's attention. The reality is a certain number of people, a very large number of people about, I think it's something like 800,000 people per year do kill themselves. A tiny, tiny percentage of those people are in such a tormented place that they come to the decision that they want to go out killing as many strangers as possible. That's a tiny, tiny subset of people, but we've seen how many mass murders there are in the United States. Obviously, suicide bombing is a phenomenon. Is it a thousand people a year throughout the world? Is it 500 people throughout the year? It probably defines on exactly how you count them, but there is a certain number of people who become suicidal, mass murderers, a grim fact, something that we're all too familiar with. Now, the thing that is even more threatening than that simple standalone fact is when people are in that state of mind, technology becomes the force multiplier. And so, there was this kind of ghoulish statistics that I've become familiar with, which was that there was a series of mass killings in China. The mass killings happen in schools everywhere. These were school killings in China and there was a series about 10 of them that happened in sort of a rash over the span of a little bit more than a year, I want to say and by this very macabre coincidence, the last one was just a few hours before the infamous Newtown killing in Connecticut. Now in China, the deadliest things that you can buy at retail tend to be knives and hammers. You can't buy machine guns at retail in China. It's just not what they make available. And so, these are mass stabbings that you have when there is a mass killing in a Chinese school and that whole wad of pan-ish [00:04:34] mass murders in Chinese schools killed fewer people than the Newtown event.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:40] Is Newtown and Sandy Hook is the same thing?
Rob Reid: [00:04:43] Newtown and Sandy Hook.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:44] Just making sure because I thought so but also, I want to clarify for the audience.
Rob Reid: [00:04:47] Yeah, they're referred to you by both names. The Sandy hook murder primarily first-graders, a certain number of teachers, 20-something people were killed in that horrible mass homicide and it was a slightly larger number than in these 10 incidents because you have a machine gun. instead of, and whenever you think about gun control. I’m not trying to make a point about gun control, people have their opinions on that. It's just a statement of fact that if somebody goes off the rails with an automatic weapon, it's going to be worse than with a knife. Now take it up a notch. In 2015, there was a depressive German pilot who decided that he was going to end his life and that of everybody on his plane, he killed 150 people. The same thing happened with this Malaysian jetliner that went missing a few years ago.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:30] Is that what they found out?
Rob Reid: [00:05:31] Yeah, there was a suicidal pilot.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:33] I did not know.
Rob Reid: [00:05:35] There was a lot of question about it for the first year and so of the investigation. But the overwhelming consensus now is that, and there've been a couple other instances like this in history. So, the grim reality is when somebody gets to that ultimate point. If they've got a knife, it's terrible. If they've got a gun, it's way worse. If they've got an airplane, it's much, much worse. And the thing that we need to ask ourselves in this era of rapidly expanding, rapidly improving technology is what lethal weapons are average people going to be able to access 15, 20, 30 years from today that they can’t access right now.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:18] I didn't realize that the Malaysian flight was a suicidal pilot.
Rob Reid: [00:06:20] Yeah, it was a complicated investigation and it'll never be at 100% because they're probably never going to recover the flight recorders. But the odds now seem overwhelmingly likely that it was the captain of the plane who did it. And there was also, there was something very peculiar about it that basically when the plane left the air traffic control territory, I think of Malaysia and entered that of another country. I don't remember it was Thailand or something else. There was this instant of handover, surprising in this day and age of technology that they still use. You know, transponders that go back to the 50s and 60s but there is this moment when the transponder hands over from one ATC to another one and at exactly that moment somebody turned it off. So, it looked mighty suspicious from the beginning, but they ended up digging into the background of the captain, I believe. And they found out that there were a lot of personal problems. There might've been a divorce, there might've been debt issues, there might've been a bunch of other things. And the consensus is overwhelming that that was essentially a suicide.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:29] Geez man, that is so horrible.
Rob Reid: [00:07:31] Totally horrible.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:32] So, he knew when the handoff was going to happen or it was just a coincidence that he turned it off.
Rob Reid: [00:07:36] He knew exactly when it was going to happen. The odds of that happening by sheer happenstance is a few seconds in a flight that lasts many hours. That was the first sign that something deliberate happened. And then once the transponder was off, there was no tracking this thing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:52] How do we not know where planes are unless they tell us? That's crazy to me.
Rob Reid: [00:07:55] Isn't it Astonishing? Well, they do show up on radar and then there's like, if you want to get into the deep history, I read a pretty involved article a couple of months ago and it ended up going over Malaysia and shame on Malaysia. Like they didn't even scramble their air force. Like it does show up on radar at some point and so that's how they were able to track where this sucker went. But it was out in the middle of the sea, not in radar range. They were relying on the transponders. Then, he takes his hard left, he goes over Malaysia, they don't scramble the jets. It's like a passenger plane…and then it went way, way out into the sort of the South Pacific and there's really no telling where this thing ultimately went down. And they really spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to find it, like hundreds of millions of dollars. This says something about our human commitment to finding victims of something like this, but they had submarines and ships and all this other stuff and finally gave up that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:51] that's interesting that we did do that. You're right, it says something about the human commitment and when you read articles about things like the Kursk, for example, that Russian submarine where they didn't even really try to do much at all. I don't know the details so I could be wrong and if so, I apologize to whoever was in charge of that investigation. But I remember reading about it and it was like they sent a Russian ship and they went, ”Yeah, that thing's down there and we cannot get them with the gear that we have.” And then there was like a Norwegian ship that said, “We can get to them, but we got to get them now because they're probably dying. There's no air.” And they said, “Hell, no, we're not letting you go down and get one of our nuclear ships, you're not Russian.” And so, everyone died and they left them there for a long time. I don't remember if it was days or weeks before they finally accepted international help from the UK and, I think, Norway and they went down and sure enough, there were a bunch of people and in a compartment that had just run out of oxygen.
Rob Reid: [00:09:51] And I thought it'd be an offense to their national pride. They'll allow somebody else to save the lives of their countrymen.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:57] That, and I think they were like, this is a nuclear submarine that probably has stuff on it that it shouldn't have on it or is against convention or has technology we don't want to share, but at the end of the day you are really worried about Norway's stealing those.
Rob Reid: [00:10:10] Yeah, Norway is not exactly very warlike.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:12] No.
Rob Reid: [00:10:13] I don't think they've invaded anybody in several centuries.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:16] I think they probably had some yes-men at the top of the military food chains saying things like, “We're going to get them and it's Russia and we're going to get them.” And then eventually went, “So we can't get these guys, can we?” And then went, “Not really.”
Rob Reid: [00:10:27] Gosh, that's awful.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:29] Yeah, it was awful. It really, really bad. And I don't know, there's a whole lot of drama that goes along with that because I think it was Vladimir Putin or something went to the town where all the people were from. For some reason, everybody from who's on the boat, not everybody, but a lot of them, they were all from like one place.
Rob Reid: [00:10:46] Well, it makes sense. There's a base where the boat is…it makes total sense.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:52] So we went there and all these people are crying and they're like, “Where's our kids? What are you doing to get them? And he's, you know, kind of talking and these people, later on, were so pissed. I think some of them spilled the beans and they were like this is just bullshit. He went in here and told us, you know, we're not even going to be able to get them out. And then we find out later from the BBC that there was a boat on top of them the whole time that could've just gone and gotten them. These are my kids is my husband's, my kid, you know, my wife, whatever. And you just didn't want to do it, you know that. So, a lot of those people were just kind of immediately disillusioned with it.
Rob Reid: [00:11:23] That’s astonishing! And I got to say in retrospect I remain astonished by the effort. Obviously, the opposite case that went into recovering this Malaysian jet because obviously at this point everybody is long dead. And it was an immense operation, mostly carried out by Australia because Australia was like the proximate country. But even they had a cover thousands of miles of ocean. And it was a really, really touching commitment to bring these people back and I'm sure to find the black box recorders if they could, but just to find the mortal remains of these people. And I don't know. That made me, it was such a tragic story, but it was cool that we tried so hard to bring them back, but we failed. We failed ultimately.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:05] The point you originally trying to make was that tech is the ultimate force multiplier in these mass killings, and so we see it with planes. Of course, we saw it with 9/11, we saw with the Malaysian airline, we saw with the German pilot with planes. We see the difference between knives and hammers versus guns versus really big machine military weapons that people sometimes get their hands on and planes, but you're hinting at something else that's even worse and it's not nukes.
Rob Reid: [00:12:32] Yes, so something that's in the pipeline right now. We'll talk very briefly about nukes. That was something that we did and still do very appropriately worry about a great deal. The one thing that's good about nukes is that it does take, generally speaking, the resources of a nation-state to create them and many, many years of highly visible effort. And as a result, there's not a great deal of proliferation. Nonetheless, when you think about how much money we have spent and how many resources and how much heartache has gone in to prevent nuclear annihilation, a very good investment, obviously, but we've literally, as a species, spent trillions of dollars over the decades and probably tens of trillions of dollars keeping two-ish people from blowing up the world. It's like having all of the diplomacy, the mechanisms of diplomacy, the conventional warfare capabilities, all of the spies and the monitoring apparatus, and the conventional wars that are actually fought from time to time to let steam out of the system. So, it doesn't go to a nuclear war, trillions and trillions of dollars. And guess what? [Indiscernible] [00:13:40] didn't blow up the world. That's great.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:13:46] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Rob Reid. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:52] How come we don't have nukes that are built-in garages since those have been around for 80 years?
Rob Reid: [00:18:00] That's a very interesting and important question. If you could have nukes in garages, obviously, something would've gone off by now. If you had 75,000 hobbyists all with a nuke in their garage at some point somebody would've lost their mind, gotten pissed off at their neighbor, or just screwed up.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:16] Even countries are having trouble building this.
Rob Reid: [00:18:18] Yes, exactly. First of all, getting the raw material, getting the plutonium that can go to critical mass and actually ignite takes a huge amount of work and you also need to use materials that are very, very closely tracked by the international infrastructure, the IAEA, the UN, other people as well. Then you have to put it in centrifuges and spin them, a lot of centrifuges for a lot of tens of thousands of hours, which is what Iran was doing over a period of years to get to the point where they enriched their material enough to get nukes. It just takes an enormous effort that you just can't do in a garage. Thank God for that. Now, synthetic biology is a very different matter. And I'm very conflicted talking about synthetic biology, which I'll define in a moment because I think that it has unbelievable potential to do so much good for humanity to help our healthspan and our lifespan and so forth. But kind of quick pocket depth and definition of synthetic biology, that is when we basically start modifying the DNA of an actual living creetur or even designing from scratch the DNA of a perfectly artificial creetur to create something that will do things that we want it to do. It might be something as simple as we want it to make a biological agent that will cure some terrible disease.
Rob Reid: [00:19:42] There's lots and lots of science labs that are working on that. It might be something a little more complicated. This is kind of exciting. There's an effort underway right now to make it possible to use pig organs as transplants into human beings.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:59] I thought we already had like people who had pig’s hearts. We did not have that?
Rob Reid: [00:20:03] No. There was a big effort in the ‘90s to do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:05] Okay. Maybe that's why I heard about this.
Rob Reid: [00:20:07] I think the National Institutes of Health or some organ in the United States spent over a billion dollars in the ‘90s because the sizing was perfect and there a lot about the metabolism that was going to work well for a lot of organs—kidneys, hearts, other things. Vegans might not like that, but we're already killing a lot of pigs for bacon anyway. If you're going to be killing a lot of bacon, if you can save tens of thousands of human lives while you're at it, that's great. The trouble was they ran up against this, this unbreakable barrier, which is that there are 67 retroviruses that are native to the pig genome but don't harm pigs, but every single one of them turns out to be lethal in human beings. And they couldn't ultimately figure out how to edit the genome. There weren't the tools in the ‘90s to get rid of those retroviruses. Well, now using a very recently invented technique called CRISPR, a guy named George Church and a couple of his graduate students at Harvard actually extricated those 67 retroviruses from the pig genome and there are now adolescent pigs in both China and the United States that have organs, at least in theory, can be very, very safely transferred to humans. And they're going to do the first primate transplants, I believe, this summer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:22] That’s crazy. So, putting a pig organ in like an ape.
Rob Reid: [00:21:27] In an ape, and then in order to find out that in fact, it's safe to put into humans.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:30] Unbelievable.
Rob Reid: [00:21:31] It's a very big deal that…If you've ever talked to somebody who has had to be on dialysis, it is a life of torture and it's a short life. And we have tens of thousands of kidneys that were short throughout the world, then there are tens of thousands of livers and other organs. The amount of human suffering that this could eliminate is really exciting. So that's a good use of synthetic biology. There's a lot of them. But if you're getting in there and you're tangling with the DNA of something, there's really nothing to stop you from taking a pathogen, something that's really deadly but not contagious or something that's really contagious but not deadly, and turning it into the most nightmarish pandemic that's ever existed. And if tomorrow’s Columbine kid or tomorrow's suicidal pilot or tomorrow's Las Vegas or Orlando shooter has the capability, when I say tomorrow, I don't literally mean next week, I mean maybe 10, 15, 20 years from now, and we'll get into how fast the technology's curve is moving. But if in the intermediate future, somebody who is at that point of misery and that point of violence and that point of nihilism has access to tools that are way more deadly than a, than an Airbus, they're going to use them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:28] Yeah, of course. It's the idea…And by the way, CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. But all you need to know is it means the ability to snip and edit DNA.
Rob Reid: [00:23:01] Yeah, it is a powerful tool for editing DNA. We've been editing DNA since the ‘70s. CRISPR is a natural system that a woman named Jennifer Doudna and other researchers, including George Church at Harvard, basically harnessed to become, it's a little bit of an exaggeration to say a word processor for DNA.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:22] It's kind of like cut and paste.
Rob Reid: [00:23:24] It’s cut and paste. It's better than cutting and pasting, but that's inside baseball. It is such a giant step forward in terms of enabling the editing of DNA that it is absolutely game-changing and it really just barely came onto the scene roughly five years ago and it's still gathering momentum and by the way, there will be post CRISPR systems that are even more powerful. There's some in the pipeline already.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:49] How did they do that? Is it like early computers where you'd to the whole huge room or it's a whole huge laboratory or is it like a machine?
Rob Reid: [00:23:57] Well, there's not really a crisper machine. It's a smart lab tech who knows what they're doing. That's leveraging a few different tools and techniques, but you know, radically powerful editing that the entire field of biology would've found impossible 10 years ago can now be done by a couple of smart grad students in a room about the size of this studio.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:20] That's crazy.
Rob Reid: [00:24:21] Yeah. It really proliferates in a way that nuclear weapons do not.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:24] Right. Because of course, the question then becomes, what if a lot of people have accessed to the big red button that could kill us all, the number you mentioned before that was really stable during the cold war. It could go off the charts.
Rob Reid: [00:24:40] And too scary by the way, anybody who remembers the cold war. And by the way, we're still threatened by nuclear weapons today. To us, plenty scary. I'll give an example of what could be done by a good guy or a bad guy in this case. It was done by good guys. Back in 2011, so this is pre-CRISPR. This is when it was really, really hard but possible to edit genomes. Two different research teams, one in Holland and one in Wisconsin, looked at the same creetur, the same bug, a very evil bug called H5N1 flu. H5N1, we don't hear much about it. Thank God, because it's barely contagious at all. You really have to try very, very hard to catch it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:21] You have to make out with a pig.
Rob Reid: [00:25:23] I think you might even have to do more than make out. This is a family show. We could probably cut it right here. It is highly uncontentious and it's also not transmissible between people. Okay, so it probably, I've got the statistics. In fact, I said in my TED Talk, I believe it's killed fewer than 50 people in the last five years.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:40] So everyone would have to bang the same infected pig.
Rob Reid: [00:25:43] We really, really have to be a very prolific pig. Lightning strikes kill a lot more people than H5N1 because it's so not contagious. But here's the trick, if you do catch H5N1 mortality rate, 60%. Ebola, 50%.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:01] Oh my gosh, I didn't realize.
Rob Reid: [00:26:02] More deadly than Ebola. So, what happens in 2011 is virologists. like I said a team in Wisconsin and team in Holland, decide they're going to do an experiment and see if they can take this thing and make it more contagious than chickenpox and they succeed. And this is called the gain-of-function.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:22] So why do that? Because of course, people are going, “Oh my gosh, you're messing with nature. This is horrible. Why are you making a super pathogen? What are you trying to do? This is idiotic and you're asking for trouble.”
Rob Reid: [00:26:31] That is a very reasonable line of questions. And a lot of people still ask those questions. The rebuttal to that would be, and some people rebutted it was like, “Oh no, no, no, that this is science. Science with a capital S. how can you stand in the way of discovery? Information wants to be free.” Now I'm being a little bit sarcastic. You could also say, “Well, as a virologist, I really want to understand a pandemic like this in case it actually does emerge out of nature. At some point, the flu is constantly recombining and mutating. Maybe one of these days of bug, like this will come along and we want to understand it. That could be a very legitimate rebuttal.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:06] Yeah, that's true. You don't want the first time you see a super pandemic to be in the wild.
Rob Reid: [00:27:10] You don't.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:11] You want it to be at a laboratory where you can light it on fire and go—
Rob Reid: [00:27:14] Now that said the truth is that nature has literally expanded. It has carried out literally trillions of recombinant experiments with flu in the wild over the decades. And this thing has never come about. So, they did make something novel and terrifying. And if you go back and read the literature from the time the head of the US biosecurity panel, a guy named Paul Keim. He said, “This is the scariest thing I've ever seen. He said anthrax isn't scary at all compared to this.” This guy is an anthrax expert.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:48] Wow. So, it's not like a guy who's heard of anthrax, like he's the anthrax guy.
Rob Reid: [00:27:53] He's the anthrax guy or one of the handfuls and his title at the time was the chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Pretty big deal.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:00] So him saying this is the scariest thing ever is it holds weight. It's not a blogger.
Rob Reid: [00:28:08] Quoted in science, which is one of the two top scientific journals in the world. Science and nature are the two…This is the real deal and that's 2011. So, what's scary about this? Well, you know, they put it under lockdown and obviously didn't get out of the air vans that these were good guys with white hats. We can question whether it was sane or stupid to do it, but they definitely weren't mustache-twirling villains. The trouble is that which can be done in 2011 can already be done radically easier today because now we have CRISPR. And that which can be done easier today, probably hundreds of people could do that today. Maybe let's just sort of sake of argument saying, “Oh, we're the only two people in the world who could pull that off in 2011. Well, there are probably hundreds of people who can pull it off today.” And at the end of the day, what did they make? Did they make a bug? Well, yes, they made a bug, but they also made a data file because the genome for flu, whether it's H5N1 or another derivative is about 10,000 letters long. And that's a four-letter alphabet. They're about 10,000 base pairs in that genome. The changes that they made in order to make that thing virulent…10,000 letters that are going to fit on a few pages. Okay. That's not a huge genome.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:26] Yeah, that's a good point. How many letters fit on a page?
Rob Reid: [00:29:33] They say 250 words per page, but it's actually probably more than that with the fonts that we use today. And they say five letters a word and that's probably undercounting, so I'd say you're a good 1200, 1300 characters per page. So, which it’s about seven pages.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:47] In fact, it says, just to keep in mind the average one-spaced page contains 3000 characters.
Rob Reid: [00:29:54] One space, yeah, I was thinking double space. So, this is a 10,000-character thing. And by the way, it's not a 26-letter alphabet. It is a four-letter alphabet because it's DNA. So, that is a sliver of the data. Now, what modifications would they make to that genome in order to make it wildly contagious? I don't know, but I could pretty much guarantee you that the tiny number of modifications would fit on a fricking post-it now. So, the ghost story that I worry about is this. That modification has happened. It is sitting in labs in Wisconsin and Amsterdam and let's, God forbid, that those labs ever get hacked and those changes get out. But let's say several years go by and I actually, I should give you another point of context, which is how fast this technology is improving. This is a really, really important data.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:42] Let me put a pin in that real quick. Getting hacked if you work at a lab like that and somebody wants to hack you is an inevitable occurrence. Because I don't know anything about this. I don’t know if you do. If I work in a lab with you and I'm doing that kind of stuff, how tight is the security? I'm sure getting in there and getting out is probably tight, but if I email you, “Hey, turns out the modification to this is just a quick dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” Is that email? Are we talking super encrypted NSA-level security?
Rob Reid: [00:31:12] They’re using Gmail.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:13] I'm using my Gmail. I’m using my university email, my lab email to email you and go, “Turns out we can modify this, this, this, and this. Why don't you give that a try.” I mean, how much does this research even encrypted on my laptop.
Rob Reid: [00:31:24] When there's only two of you in the world who have done this and you have an enormous amount of respect for it. Maybe you're sort of be careful about it. When we're at a point where tens of thousands of graduate students can be shuffling information back and forth like this, they're going to take the same amount of care that they take with selfies, and sensitive photographs and anything else that gets hacked thousands of times per day. Equifax got hacked. They were in the business of data security. Equifax was one of the three entities in the world that did credit ratings for Americans and had hundreds of millions of Social Security numbers, whatever digital locks they had that were turned out to be putty in the hands of a hacker, guaranteed a high school biology lab ain’t going to have that. Now, why am I saying high school biology labs? So, let's get to the rapidity with which this stuff is advancing. Everybody's heard of the human genome project. It was a 13-year project.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:23] This a project to sequence the human genome.
Rob Reid: [00:32:26] The entire human genome. So very, very big scientific effort throughout the ‘90s. It costs $3 billion to do that. And basically, sequencing is a fancy word for reading but basically, they took a solitary human's genome, one person's genome, and found out what are the 3-billion genetic letters, A, G, C, and T. Those are the only letters that our genomes are written from. What are those three-ish billion letters in a single person's genome? That was a 13-year project. It was money well spent. It costs $3 billion. It ended in 2003. It involved thousands of the brightest minds in life science. The thing about is a unit of work, reading a genome. Ended in 03, now 03 is a long time ago. But you know, W was president, Friends was on the air. This isn't like ancient history.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:20] It's not like Fresh Prince was on the air.
Rob Reid: [00:33:22] No, it’s not like Fresh Prince was on the air. It's not like The Brady Bunch. This is the recent year 2003.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:27] In fact, we said on the air, it wasn't streaming. Those services didn't exist, but they came shortly thereafter. You're right. It's not ancient history. There are kids that were born then, they have their learner's permit now.
Rob Reid: [00:33:40] The kids who were born at that moment are barely driving now. This was the last decade. $3 billion 13 years. That would cost you $500 today and it would probably be done by a lab tech and span that it would probably take about a day, but it would take a few minutes of that lab tech’s time that lab tech could be smart, high school kid.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:03] How much would it cost now?
Rob Reid: [00:34:05] So today, I think, it's 599 with Veritas, let's round it to 500 because of the math. Is easier. Comparing $500 to $3 billion. That is a price compression of 6 million X, 13 years going to a day-ish. That's a comparable price compression. So, what we're saying is a smart high school kid today can do what the entire field of life sciences needed 13 years to do last decade.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:36] That's crazy.
Rob Reid: [00:34:37] That's crazy. And that's the speed with which this stuff is working. It's like computing. We got Moore's Law in computing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:43] Can you tell us what Moore's Law is? A lot of people don't know what this is.
Rob Reid: [00:34:46] Moore's Law is that thing that makes our computers and our phones and everything else improve at this insane rate. And it's something that basically people in Silicon Valley calculated many, many years ago, I think back in the ‘60s and they basically said the amount of computing power that you get for a dollar doubles every 18 months. And now it's every two years. But that has been going on decade after decade, since the ‘60s and that is what has enabled everything that we touch in life to transform over the last 30 years is this thing called Moore's Law. This doubling every 18 to 24 months. Life science is going much faster than that. So, you look at the—
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:30] Do we have a fancy name for that though?
Rob Reid: [00:35:32] The Carlson Curve.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:33] Oh, good, I was worried for a sec.
Rob Reid: [00:35:36] So call it the Carlson Curve and I've met Rob Carlson, so I feel like I met a celebrity. You look at charts and I could give you one if you want to put it up in the show notes that trace the speed with which computing it's cheaper.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:50] Yeah, we'll put that in the show now.
Rob Reid: [00:35:50] We’ll put it in the show notes and then you put plot next to that, the Carlson curve. And it's so much steeper and again that human genome project is an example. So, to use that example, we don't know what but imagine whatever, it is that the whole field of synthetic biology can do over the next 13 years. All the thousands of people, all the magic, whatever it is, we don't know. It's huge. Then imagine about 20 years after that a high school kid could do all of that in an afternoon. That's the path—
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:22] That's scary and amazing.
Rob Reid: [00:36:23] It's scary. It's amazing. It's exciting when you think about all the things that can do to, you know, cure blindness and, and get rid of the organ shortage and extend life's expand lifespans. I mean, there's all sorts of great stuff, but now let's go back to the Columbine kid.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:37] Or even just Enrico family saying any civilization given enough time blows themselves up.
Rob Reid: [00:36:42] That's a very, very interesting point being that might explain why we don't see anything when we look out into space. What happens is that thing, which two geniuses in Wisconsin, in Holland alone, we're able to do two good guys, in 2011 is probably already something that a few hundred smart graduate students could do today. And with this improvement curve that we're on, it's a matter of time. And I don't pretend to know, but it is not centuries. It's decades. It's a matter of time before capabilities like that are going to be in any college lab and probably any high school lab.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:19] Sure, yeah. Like a good public school.
Rob Reid: [00:37:22] Excellent public school, Brooklyn science, or just a good suburban school and the techniques to do things with those base pairs, it's just going to get easier and easier and easier. Just like computing is. That's an example I used in my TED Talk, which is kind of fun because this little playful is if in the 1950s you wanted to play checkers against a computer, you had to be a guy named Arthur Samuel. He was the only human being on earth who could play checkers against a computer because he had access to one of about a dozen, very high-end IBM computers in the world. He had unlimited access and he had like a Nobel adjacent brain that was so God damn smart, he could teach a computer to play checkers. So that's what it took to play checkers against a computer in 1950 something. Today you just need to know someone who knows someone who owns a phone. Lower bar, much lower.
[00:38:25] Now let's say, I'll tell a ghost story now. I mean that playfully. Let's say five years from now, this is a really brilliant woman at MIT and she's a virologist and she's going to do the same kind of thing as these people did in Wisconsin and in Holland and she's going to create the most terrifying bug that ever existed. And what it's going to do is it's going to be 10 times as contagious as chickenpox, 10 times as lethal as Ebola, although that's impossible because Ebola is at 50%, but you get the gist.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:53] Like 99% lethal.
Rob Reid: [00:38:55] Totally lethal. And then here's the kicker, it incubates in the human body for 10 months so the entire world can be infected with it before the first person gets sick, and she does this for all the right reasons. She wants to save humanity, she wants to understand the disease, all the right reasons or maybe she's just getting your thesis or whatever it is, she makes this. And then her computer gets hacked, which is, we know or she sends the wrong email or she opens the wrong attachment. That data gets out. Now, let's be optimistic and say six years from now when I'm hypothetically making this happen, it would actually take a genius like her to take the data of that genome to take the 10,000 letters and turn it into a living creetur. That's still hard. Let's say six years from now, it's still really, really, really hard. Well, how many years is it going to be before a simple DNA synthesizer printer that you can find in any high school lab comes along and he's at 15 years as a 10 as a 20 I don't know, but again, it's not a century. And the point is that the data file gets out there, she gets hacked. That data file is going to join all the pirated Abba songs and Breaking Bad episodes, in every dark corner.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:09] It's on BitTorrent.
Rob Reid: [00:40:10] It’s on BitTorrent, it’s in the dark web. Wherever Silk Road replacement is, it's where all the child porn is. It's everywhere. And nobody in, you know, 2026 or whatever the year is. Very few people can do anything evil with it. But 20, 25, 30 years later when DNA synthesizers are as common as paper printers, a lot of people can do something evil with.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:33] That's a good point. The 3D printing weapons now. I think they explode after you fire them twice or something. Right? But for now, but if you have a 3D metal printer, the right kind and then you know what you're doing, you can sort of maybe work out some of the kinks. That's going to be something where anyone will be able to get this. And so, this file, having been around for 30 years is still just as lethal because it's not like we've evolved resistance to it.
Rob Reid: [00:41:04] No, it's a thousand times more lethal, or over a hundred thousand or a million because all of a sudden anybody can get access to it in. And so, then the question is who do we worry about? And I do worry about these thousand-ish people who detonate every year. I'll use the word detonate, whether it's the Vegas shooter or the pilots that we've been talking about.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:21] Aum Shinrikyo.
Rob Reid: [00:41:22] Aum Shinrikyo, an example there was the 1990s, the Japanese cult that let sarin gas go at the Tokyo subway because they just wanted to kill a lot of people.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:32] How did get that? Do you know how they got that?
Rob Reid: [00:41:34] You know, apparently, it's just not that hard to synthesize sarin gas. And so, we do rely on the Goodwill of the people who have the power to do terrible things, not to do them. And I'll make the point that on any given day, I checked this, there's like 100,000 commercial flights a day. Not a lot of pilots are plowing them into the ground. But it really only takes one if we're talking about something that is not a local event, even a pilot smashing his plane to the ground is a local event. The guy with the machine guns in Las Vegas, local event. Mass murder is a local thing right now. But it ceases to be if it becomes something that's very contagious and that that can travel. And so that is the concern. How do we stop people from creating terrible pathogens for good reasons or ill and for those data files, how do we keep them from getting out if we can't keep…We can't keep the plans of the F-35? I mean literally the deepest darkest secrets of the United States military with all of our cyber defenses, with the most brilliant hackers that this country can generate, couldn't keep foreign power, couldn't keep China out of stealing the plans for the F-35. How in the world is a grad student 17 years from now, who can very easily create a pathogen for a homework assignment? How are they going to keep all those actors from getting access to stuff? So, I worry about this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:00] Yeah, no kidding. Even the anthrax attacks on politicians, that was a senior researcher that did it.
Rob Reid: [00:43:07] That is a very important point. And so, do we worry about the Columbine kids or do we worry about somebody who's incredibly well-vetted? And so that attack that happened, it's never quite been proven. But again, it's one of those things that's more or less gone beyond controversy. It actually strikes a big chord on me; I happened to be in Tom Daschle's office when the envelopes showed up, by sheer happenstance. So, this is for those who don't know this story. This was immediately after 9/11. Some weapons created anthrax started showing up in the US mail. It was mailed to a number of congressional leaders including Tom Daschle at the time was the majority leader in the Senate, also sent to the National Inquirer, oddly enough.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:49] That's unusual, odd.
Rob Reid: [00:43:50] It was odd, it was an odd mix of things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:52] They're probably just thinking, you know what, while I'm taking out people I don't like.
Rob Reid: [00:43:56] Well that was one to me as somebody who had spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East. To me, that was sign number one, that this was a bitter American rather than some Al Qaeda-inspired operative. Because a lot of people, particularly like 20, 30 years ago, hated the Inquirer instinctively. It was kind of like a whipping boy for people who thought that their American culture was going to the dogs. And I'm sorry, there was no way that Osama bin Laden bore a grudge to the Inquirer.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:25] Probably not he hit other targets.
Rob Reid: [00:44:29] The other thing that kind of tipped me off, if any, you know, not like I'm a big intelligence operative or anything, but they printed what was written on the envelopes and they had written, Allah is his great. Now as somebody who studied a lot of Arabic and spent a lot of time in the Middle East with Arabic speakers who were learning English. The first thing if you were a religious Muslim, the first word you want to learn in English is how do you say, God? And the word is God. And so, if you are worshiping the Allah in Islam, you worship the same God. And when you're learning English you say, “Well, how do I say Allah?” You say, “Oh, it's the word is God.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:04] You don't write Allah—
Rob Reid: [00:45:07] Allah and God are the same thing. God is the translation for Allah. And so even somebody who spoke very poor English who was a terrorist and was trying to make their points would say God is great when they were writing in English. I mean it was clearly written by somebody who was trying to act like they were…Anyway, you've got the punchline. It turned out to be a very senior weapons researcher who was in the senior management of that weapons lab in the United States army. And so, we can't keep a deadly pathogen that our own army makes out of the Senate Majority Leader's office. What other things are going to leak?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:50] Yeah, good point. And also, it's not just a matter of stopping the tech, right? We can't say, well look we, we've managed to reign in nukes because nuclear weapons don't have like, well we really need all this plutonium sitting around at a hospital. Because that's what we use for z-x-rays. It's like there's a very distinctive use case for weapons-grade, uranium, plutonium, whatever it is. We can't stop synthetic biology any more than we can stop smartphones. Yeah. Because the upside is too, right.
Rob Reid: [00:46:18] The upside is too widespread. So, it's a little scary. And you know, again, like I said at the beginning, I'm conflicted in that. I'm a big SynBio fanboy as, you know, I've got a podcast of my own and I spent a huge amount of time—
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:36] Let's talk about the show. Yes, I have a podcast called After On and which was named after a novel that I wrote a couple of years ago. It's kind of an odd title but it's called After On. And I mainly interview scientists, technologists, and founders as well, but primarily scientists in great depth about what they do with the goal of making very complex and fascinating and important science widely accessible to non-experts. My listeners are from very general backgrounds. They're just smart, curious people. I'm doing a lot of work with synthetic biology because I find it to be electrifying the potential that it has, but there is this dark side to it. And so one of the things that I've been spending time on with the folks that I've been interviewing and actually have some very, very productive relationships and one of the things I focused on in the TED Talk is what can we do to prevent this kind of a doomsday scenario from happening. What we cannot do, we can't ban the technology. It's simply can't be done. Because if you do, then you're basically saying we will let North Korean, China, Russia, and so forth go ahead. Again, it's not like a nuclear weapon. If you look at think of how many illegal drug labs there are out there, biology can be practiced very quietly in very small, secretive places.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:51] Yeah. This will eventually be the kind of thing where it…I mean you can make meth in an RV. I saw that show.
Rob Reid: [00:47:56] I saw that show too.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:58] So eventually you'll be able to make pathogens in an RV.
Rob Reid: [00:48:00] You probably could already.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:02] You can already.
Rob Reid: [00:48:03] I would imagine that the steps that went into making that lethal H5N1 in Wisconsin in 2011, using CRISPR technologies today could be done in a lab about the size of that RV in Breaking Bad.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:14] Sure. Yeah. It might just not be an actual RV that they bought from a junkyard. It would be specialized and have the gear but it's only a matter of time till you can get this kind of thing, the machinery and it's small enough and it's like putting a fridge in an RV.
Rob Reid: [00:48:28] The machinery on the expertise, it's just going to proliferate so tech ban cannot be done.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:48:36] You're listening to the Jordan harbinger show with our guest Rob Reid. We'll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:40] This episode is sponsored in part by Made In Cookware.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:59] I'm not much of a cooker. In fact, I believe they call them chefs these days, but—
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:08] Yep. But, Jason, I had to have you over to cook dinner, which, you know, feel free to make a habit out of that.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:49:13] Yeah. Not sure about that one. It's a little bit a drive, but I wanted to see the kid, so I made my way up and said hi, but you guys got the 12-inch blue carbon steel frying pan from Made In and I was dying to try it and Jen was busy and you can't cook your way out of a paper bag.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:30] Tried that. Caused a fire.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:49:32] Yep. It definitely caused a fire. So, I made you guys in pan-seared scallops with a side of parmesan and garlic, cauliflower puree and some sautéed mushrooms. And I got to say this blue carbon steel frying pan from Made In…I'm getting them for everybody I know for Christmas. It's kind of a hybrid between the old cast iron pans and like new technology. But the thing is it's so light and it keeps the heat evenly across the entire surface while you're cooking it because scallops are notoriously hard to cook anyway. But having that, that constant heat source was fantastic.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:03] So I know nothing about that. All I know is this pan cooked some really good food the other nights. So, thanks to this pan for that dinner, Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:22] this episode is also sponsored in part by Progressive.
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[00:52:52] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals and don't forget the worksheet for today's episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. And if you're listening to us on the overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. It really helps us out. Now for the conclusion of our show with Rob Reid.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:19] Naval Ravikant, I think, on your show said technology as a coin and on one side is the mortality and on the other side is annihilation.
Rob Reid: [00:53:27] Precisely.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:27] That's what we're looking at.
Rob Reid: [00:53:28] That is what we're looking at and how do we engineer this situation so that we get the immortality because there is so much benefit and upside. Again, let's remember that the 100,000 pilots who pilot a commercial flight every day, it's once every five or 10 years that one of them downs the plane. Most people are good guys.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:48] Yes. Thank God for that.
Rob Reid: [00:53:49] Thank God for that. Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:51] So we know we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. It's like Napster. The new 50-cent single is out there. It's not going to go back in. All the movie companies, they already tried this with data. “Oh, we're going to put a fake copy of the Avengers on BitTorrent.” “Oh, we're going to sue some people that download this one. We're going to monitor it.” Great. I still download movies all the time. I can say it out loud on this show that has hundreds of thousands of people listening and nothing is going to happen as a result because this impossible.
Rob Reid: [00:54:220] This is a toothpaste we do not want to put back into the tube because again, the potential for like for cleaning up the climate. I mean there are really interesting things that are going on in SynBio right now where there's a project to make the corn grow much, much thicker stalks so it sucks more carbon out of the air. That's really interesting stuff. There's a, there's a project that's going on in Australia, sea kelp basically seaweed grows something like 60 times faster than trees. And so, it's a really good way to—
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:53] Super long tuber—
Rob Reid: [00:54:56] Yeah. And so there's like a notion where you going to grow at sea kelp really, really long and then cut it off and let it go to the bottom of like of the ocean in an area where the bottom is pretty desert, like there's, there's a lot of the ocean depths, there really is no ecosystem that you'd be messing with. Like there's a lot of things that you could do with synthetic biology to really clean the environment and expand people's lives and to get rid of diseases. This is toothpaste, we really want to brush our teeth with it. But even if we didn't, there's no putting it back into the tube as you said.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:26] Yeah. I'm trying to even think. I'm like, wow, you could drag that kelp and make it rot and create natural gas. I mean there's all kinds of things—
Rob Reid: [00:55:31] All kinds of things, and then there is also work going on with using bacteria and the, if you teach it to sort of like have the right kind of digestion, maybe it exhales methane. There's lots of potential in synthetic biology and billions of dollars are going into it to do great things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:51] When I think about this, I always think about how much plastic is in landfills and I'm like, okay, we're not digging that out. But what if there's bacteria that eats plastic and makes, I don't know, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane. There's got to be some other byproducts, but you just set that loose in a controlled environment and it eats plastic.
Rob Reid: [00:56:13] And all of these things again, you think of the guy with the chess machine in 1950 and you think of an iPhone today and you realize that we're at the beginning of an even steeper and faster curve in terms of what we can make biology. None of those sound even remotely implausible. So, there's so much benefit that's going to come from this if we can manage not to annihilate ourselves. It's not just the lone wolf that you worry about. Again, in my TED Talk, I had 16 or 17 minutes, I focused on the lone wolf because you can only focus on so many things, but there are really nihilistic groups that are out there, whether they're radical environmentalists, people like Aum Shinrikyo. There are groups and groups are more dangerous than individuals because they can pull resources and expertise that might want to do something like this. There's all kinds of crazy stuff that can go on it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:10] You're right. Who knows? You could end up with a group that decides and we already have things where people pray or try to expedite Armageddon. And a lot of them go to church every Sunday. That's the whole point. So, imagine like you said, environmentalist, they could say, “You know what, they're just too many damn humans. The earth will be better off if there are fewer of them. We can't kill everybody nor if would we want to, but we can probably kill 80% or 60% or even 25% and it's a huge number of people.
Rob Reid: [00:57:44] Bitter narcissist is a terminal diagnosis and doesn't like the idea of life going on without them. I mean there's so many people. Then again, if we think about the person with the checkers game and how widespread that technology is and assume that we're going to go down a similar acceleration curve and we are not going to have that nation-state level of scale that you need with nukes preventing things. You have to start. We have to start thinking now about how the countermeasures that we can have so that we can benefit from this amazing technology but not be vulnerable to it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:16] With new tech I think of things like Windows or old edition. I mean remember windows 3.1 that was like really not a secure OS. I mean Windows—
Rob Reid: [00:58:28] No windows is very secure.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:30] No windows. In fact, what was the first one? Was it windows 95 when, when we sort of got internet?
Rob Reid: [00:58:35] Yeah, Windows 95 would have come along. The first commercial browsers came out Mosaic. Mosaic was pretty commercial, but the Netscape navigator came out in late ‘94 and so more or less by definition, you started getting, that was the tip of the iceberg of the world wide web being consumer phenomenon. Yahoo got started and I was just around then and I also wrote some internet history. So, I know these bizarre details. Yahoo got started in 1995. You had some other really important early companies like [indiscernible] [00:59:06], I think RealNetworks, they all started around ‘95.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:09] Oh my god. The Real Player. I got so angry whenever that thing would open up in order to play something. It was one of those early, “Hey, I bet we can force everyone to get these pieces of software.”.
Rob Reid: [00:59:20] There are a lot of people have PTSD from the Real Player, there's no question. So, the earliest days of the commercial internet were ’94, ‘95. So, Win 95, that would've been coincident with the real early adopters. Windows XP, I think, was the one that just stuck around forever because it was pretty stable and a lot of people really, really liked it. But this is a different problem. I mean like it's bad enough when you get a virus on your computer, you have to reboot your computer and maybe reformat your hard drive. Get a virus and you're one of us, you die.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:50] Yeah. I'm like, how do I defrag my lungs? My pancreas?
Rob Reid: [00:59:55] I actually was asked to give this TED Talk with 11 days' notice, um, which was a little bit intimidating.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:03] humblebrag, just kidding.
Rob Reid: [01:00:04] I know and it was because I did this podcast. You mentioned with Naval Ravikant an episode of my podcast. Then they heard at TED and they said we'd like to have this done. But you know the conferences right around the corner. So, my challenge was rather than just raising the specter of this, we need to end on an optimistic note and we need to end with some action items because I am convinced that we can navigate this. And so, I started talking to some of my former guests from my podcast and there are a couple of very interesting steps that I believe could be massively curated if we take them right now. And it talked about both of them at the end of the talk. We've got a little bit more time here. There are really two sides of this. The first one would be a massively distributed pathogen detector network. So, think of basically a smoke alarm, but instead of detecting smoke, it's constantly inhaling all the fragments of DNA and RNA that are cycling out in the air. And it's sequencing and it's reading. And sequencing is a fancy word for reading it and trying to find what's weird, what's dangerous, what is bizarre in the air. If we tried to do this 20 years ago, the response would be like, “Hey, you knucklehead, it's going to cost us $3 billion and 13 years just to read a single unit human genome.” Well, that cost, as we talked about is plummeting and it's plummeting so rapidly. There already are some pretty primitive and pretty bulky and imperfect pathogen detectors that are used in laboratory and other environments. This is something that if we made an R&D priority of it, we could get to very, very sensitive, very smart, pathogen detectors that would probably be as ubiquitous as smoke detectors within a decade. And then the longterm goal would be to have them be as ubiquitous as smartphones. Just have pathogen detection everywhere. And have it networked.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:2] Because on my phone I'm holding my phone. I've got a barometer.
Rob Reid: [01:02:05] You got a barometer.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:07] I've got Dark Sky, which is a weather app. Yep. And it is super, it's supposed to be more accurate because it takes barometer readings from everybody who's got it installed.
Rob Reid: [01:02:15] Exactly. Dark Sky takes barometers readings from millions of phones. It melds that with the commercially available weather data and yeah, it gives you a minute to minute forecast right where you are. It's an amazing app.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:26] It's pretty cool cause it'll be like the weather go. “It's 73 and sunny,” and “I'm like, I'm wet right now. I'm outside and it's raining.” And Dark Sky is the only app where it's like, “Hey, uh, you're getting wet.”
Rob Reid: [01:02:36] Yeah. Dark Sky says you're getting wet or Dark Sky says it's going to start raining in seven minutes. and it's usually right.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:41] And I go how does it know that? The forecast doesn't say anything about “Oh, better move out. God, move the laptop.” It's, it's incredible. My point is we have a barometer on the phone. Why wouldn't we have a pathogen detector on the phone? Especially because it wouldn't be there because well, we need to be able to crowdsource pathogen detection. It will be in there because my phone will have an app where I blow into the bottom and it says, ”Hey, you might want to call in sick and go back to sleep. You have the early onset of influenza. You should get some rest.
Rob Reid: [01:03:12] And so that's one of the interesting things is when you get into this, you know, why don't you have a pathogen detection on the phone right now because it's 2019 and they're not good enough and they're not small enough. But we are on this steep, steep curve and if we make a priority of it as a society and we start devoting, you know, a certain percentage of the National Institute of Health R&D budget to pathogen detection. this is very, very important. We go from none of them to smoke detector ubiquity to smartphone ubiquity and you said exactly a very important thing, there'll be a very good reason to have a pathogen detector on your phone because you want to take, why not check your breath every morning? Why not have the nursery school teacher, wave it around in the morning and start saying this would, what's interesting to me about pathogen detection is although we're, we're pushing this network out there to prevent something catastrophic, it would pay for itself so rapidly by just like snipping flu and other epidemics in the bud. Oh man. I'm just so good at detecting illnesses.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:13] Imagine if every time you walked into a school, you know right before you walked to your seat and say the pledge of allegiance or whatever, you just blow into a little tube. You don't even have to change the tube. You don't have to put your mouth on it. You just blow in the direction of this machine that's by the door and if it blinks red, Tommy has to go home and go to sleep because he's got the flu or he's got a cold
Rob Reid: [01:04:32] Why not Tommy blows it when he's at home? He doesn't even come into school or whatever. And so, there's, there are lots of reasons to create this technology and even though in 2019, sci-fi it is not going to be sci-fi 2029 so we've got a lot of time to get ahead of this. Now the other side, which is equally exciting and equally feasible is taking a biomanufacturing infrastructure and pushing it out, what they call to the edge. Now pushing it out to the edge means that you take something that's highly, highly centralized and you make it ubiquitous. So back in the day, computers all sat inside of these gigantic buildings owned by IBM. Now obviously we have computing everywhere. We have it in our back pockets and all of our homes. Biomanufacturing is how we got vaccines right now. As if you want to create a vaccine, let's say the flu vaccine, for instance, you make your best guess about what the influenza vaccine or the influence of the virus is going to be like in North America in nine months. You spend months manufacturing a vaccine that's targeted at that best guess. Meanwhile, influential is mutating wildly. There's going to be a slightly different strain in Buffalo than there is in Detroit, and you've got to sort of manufacture all this stuff. It takes months, you've got to ship it, you've got a story, you got to refrigerate it, and we do the okay-ish job, but we still lose just in the United States alone, something like 20,000 to 30,000 deaths per year to the flu. What happens if some diabolical person makes a pathogen and they release it in, you know, the center of Chicago, and we're not going to have six months to manufacture this. We're not going to have all this time to ship it and so forth. But what you can do is take Leverage 3D printing technology and there's already a lot of research that's going into printing that occasions and there is no reason that you can't print vaccines.
Rob Reid: [01:06:28] Where do you want to print vaccines? You don't want to print them in Atlanta at the centers for disease control and then ship them everywhere. I think you want to print them in every single pharmacy.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:38] So you could have the pharmacy deliver the medicine to you.
Rob Reid: [01:06:43] 60,000 distribution points, 60,000 manufacturing points, and then you have it in every doctor's office and there's no reason. Again, if we go deeper into the curve, you have it on every home.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:53] Okay. Oh, I'm imagining this right now. Like so if we have pathogen detectors on the phone, my phone could say, “Hey, you know a lot of your neighbors have this strain of the flu. You're probably going to get it if you hang out in your neighborhood with your neighbors or at your office. Yeah. Cause it doesn't even have to be around you. They could say you work with Rob, Jordan, Jason, and Jenny, they all have this and you're about to walk into a room with them. Or they had it last week. You should take this medic medication now. We just sent an instruction to your DNA printer that's in your home office or in your kitchen. Go and take those pills before or take that injection or whatever it is before you go to work.
Rob Reid: [01:07:34] Precisely. And again, I say this, obviously, you identified me correctly. I am a science fiction writer in addition to a podcaster and a couple of other things and a science writer. So sci-fi writer talking about the future. But again, this is a thing, these are things that are entirely feasible in the 15, 20-year timeframe, which by the way is the timeframe in which we really, I think, need to freak out. The Columbine kid is not going to release this deadly pathogen tomorrow. The first person to do something awful with synthetic biology and there will be such a person someday. they might not even be born yet. You know? So are advantages. Good guys on number bad guys by an overwhelming ratio. We're thinking about this now, we have decades to start getting ready and these two very basic pieces of infrastructure, I'm not saying they're an impermeable defense, I mean there'll be other diabolical thoughts and will always be an arms race. But if you have widely distributed vaccine manufacturer, widely distributed pathogen detection, you suddenly plug a lot of holes. There will be other cunning things that can come along, but this is the kind of investment that I think we should start making today and we can start making today and to sort of protect ourselves against the worst-case scenarios of these otherwise rather miraculous and exciting technologies that are in the pipeline.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:57] Yeah, I think we need almost like a think tank of people that are trying to figure out what's going to go…Reid team to go through this.
Rob Reid: [01:09:04] Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:05] SynBio has a lot of really cool applications. We talked about using it to make organs. I think I saw something about goats’ milk having super-strong spider thread in it. Have you heard about this?
Rob Reid: [01:09:17] No, but I have heard about people basically re-purposing spider thread and some of which have unbelievable properties in terms of toughness and portability and lightness and so forth. Then there's also the efficiency with which termites, the microbiome in termites are basically, the gut bacteria in a termite, the efficiency with which it processes wood, with which it turns wood cellulose into energy. If we could figure that out and harness it and it's a matter of time wood suddenly become almost like a super fuel, like the amount of energy they can get out. I'm not going to get the right numbers right, but the amount of energy they could get out of a cord of wood. It wouldn’t empower a city, but it would power a lot. That's being done with biology right now. Super materials, super energy efficiency, and we're just in the earliest stages of cracking this stuff.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:20] I found it, this is from 2010 by the way, researchers from the University of Wyoming have developed a way to incorporate spider's silk-spinning genes into goats. Allowing the researchers to harvest silk protein from the goat's milk for a variety of applications.
Rob Reid: [01:10:35] From the milk, not the hair.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:36] from the milk.
Rob Reid: [01:10:37] That's cool.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:38] Because I guess the problem is spiders are territorial from what it looks like here. So, when you try to set up spider farms, they just kill each other.
Rob Reid: [01:10:47] They just kill each other. There's go-to social.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:49] Additionally, you wait for a spider to spin a web. You're just like, “Oh my god.”
Rob Reid: [01:10:530] Get on with it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:55] You can milk a goat, I think several times a day, and if this stuff, the required stuff is in there.
Rob Reid: [01:11:00] And gets distilled out of it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:00] You have a ton of this stuff. And it says, other than their ability to produce the spider silk protein, that goats do not seem to have any other differences in health appearance or behavior compared to goats without the gene.
Rob Reid: [01:11:17] And this is a brilliant idea that dates back nine years. This idea was pre-CRISPR. This idea was when all of the tools of synthetic biology were unbelievably primitive compared to what they are right now. I mean, the amount of stuff that's going to come out of this field that's positive is reason enough to make sure we don't get annihilated because the future has the potential to be so amazing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:40] I'm interested in what kind of super senses or super abilities humans might get in the future too. That's probably a different show.
Rob Reid: [01:11:47] We'll life extension. What kind of photoreceptors can we get? There are creatures out there that perceived reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum, perceived reaches of the sound frequencies that we can access. There are creatures that are out there that have something called electroreception, which allows sharks to hunt and other kinds of fish to hunt without seeing. The birds who have something called magnetoreception. Magnetoreception allows them to navigate. So, they have a sense of where the Earth's magnetic sphere is aligned. There are senses that humans lack actual senses that beings on this planet have. And there are extents to our senses. The term that's often used is called umwelt. It's a very interesting idea. It's a Germanic word—
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:35] It just means environment in German.
Rob Reid: [01:12:37] The way that it was used by the philosopher who started using the word in the neuroscience, umwelt as, you know. Umwelt is that sliver of reality that had given creetur can perceive. And so right now you and I can probably perceive a vanishingly small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum we can't see on for red. We can't see ultraviolet and forget about microwaves and radio waves and cosmic rays.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:07] It would be distracting at some level.
Rob Reid: [01:13:09] It could be distracting, but there might be people who say that seeing purple would be distracting if we couldn't see purple. We could see ultraviolet. Flowers would be a little bit prettier. They've got patterns on them that bees can see that we can’t see. If we could see infrared, we wouldn't bump into shit at night. That'd be kind of nice.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:25] Yeah, that would be nice.
Rob Reid: [01:13:27] So the extension of the umwelt. Now, this is getting a little bit deeper into what can be done with both neuroscience and synthetic biology. But, yeah, there's senses that we'd be able to develop and extensions to the senses that we already have that could be really, really powerful.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:41] What about radiation resistance? Because think about it, and I know that sounds ridiculous in comic-bookie, but what happens if we live on another planet? More radiation is hitting us or different kinds. I don't know this at all, but I assume Mars has a different environment or atmosphere than earth. Maybe it doesn't filter out all the UV.
Rob Reid: [01:14:00] Well, the biggest problem actually with going to Mars is the journey. Mars has a bit of an atmosphere, it's about a hundredth the size of ours. So yes, you would get a lot more radiation there, plus it’s further from the sun. Most of the radiation that we get solar radiation, so the distance might do something for you. But the real danger is in the roughly two years that we currently think with today's technology, you would spend, maybe it's a little less than two years, I think the window opens every two years. It's like a nine-month journey. But when you're out in space without an atmosphere protecting you, there's a lot of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to, which is a sort of unsolved problem, I believe still when people talk about Martian colonization. it's something we're going to have to deal with, and smart people like you must be thinking about it, but it's not an easy one.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:48] I guess once you get one generation up there and you're giving birth at, you don't have to worry about the journey anymore.
Rob Reid: [01:14:52] Don't worry about the journey. More or less, you want to come back and you know, go to the world series of poker, do some swimming, whatever it is. I would imagine that Martian colonization, like the colonization of the new world of North America, will become increasingly attractive to people. The easier it is to get back and forth. In the early days of colonizing North America as with Mars, you had to spend months in this really wretched environment in which you might die. And now that we can hop on planes and go back and forth.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:24] like the Oregon Trail, man.
Rob Reid: [01:15:25] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:26] Well, thank you for your time.
Rob Reid: [01:15:27] Absolutely.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:27] I don't want to [indiscernible] [01:15:28] the reservation. This has been fascinating.
Rob Reid: [01:15:30] Yes. This has been a lot of fun and I'm thank you for having me on. And if anybody wants to learn more about synthetic biology in general, if I can just re-pitch my podcast is called After On. I've talked to a lot of the top people in that field. I also talked to people about astronomy, quantum computing, lots and lots of fun topics and the TED Talks about 18 minutes long.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:51] Yeah will link to it in the show notes.
Rob Reid: [01:15:54] We've gone into greater depth than the talk itself right here.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:56] Perfect. Thank you very much. I'm looking forward to it. I loved the TED Talk. It'll be in the show notes along with links to Rob's podcast for those of you who are interested. Thank you very much.
Rob Reid: [01:16:04] Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:06] Great big thank you to Rob Reid for coming on the show. This, Jason, was not only surprising, but I mean it's, it's scary but it's scarier because it's not that farfetched. Like I can really see how this would go down. The path to this disaster is pretty clear, right? I'm, I'm hoping there are people out there that know more about this stuff than I do and go, “Look, this is much more complex than everyone thinks,” but I don't know.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:16:33] Yeah, it's pretty interesting. And I like his idea of the sensor net to start looking for these pathogens. This is my security background coming in. You know, when you have antivirus on your computer, you have to get virus definitions, which means somebody has found the virus and has fingerprinted it and profiled it. And that's how the software knows that this is something that you shouldn't run on your computer. Now when it comes to a sensor net looking for pathogens, how's it going to know if this is a new pathogen we've never seen before because it hasn't been fingerprinted and sent out to the network. So, I think that's kind of a minor in the net that is going to keep us safe. But I do like the idea, but I think that there definitely needs to be some work going on there.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:16] That's true. I mean I guess they would just have to say, “Hey there's this weird disease looking thing.”
Jason DeFillippo: [01:17:22] Yeah we don't recognize it. Then maybe alert, run inside and get your duct tape in your saran wrap and put your windows up.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:29] Exactly like what kind of organic compound is there that wouldn't be fingerprinted because by that point you'll be able to test for billions of things in just a few seconds. So, if there's something that just doesn't have a hit at all in the database. Okay, you have a mutated flu virus that's, that's code one. But if you've gotten mutated anthrax or swine flu, they better surround you with hazmat suits and put a bag over you at that point. You are on lockdown. So, it's a little scary either way, it's dystopian. We'll link to the TED Talk, of course, in the show notes and we'll link to some of Rob's other stuff because he is a great writer and very interesting.
[01:18:05] We're teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems, using tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. I know you want to do it later, but procrastination leads to stagnation when it comes to your personal and business relationships. I see a lot of people telling me they're too busy to dig the well before they get thirsty, but once you need relationships, you are too late. The best time to get a job is when you already have a job. The drills take a few minutes per day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. This is not fluff. It is crucial. And again, it's free jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests here on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletters, so come join us, you'll be in some smart company. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and/or follow me on social. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[01:18:54] This show is produced in association with PodcastOne. This episode was co-produced by Jason DeFillippo and Jen Harbinger, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions and those of our guests are their own. And yes, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful, which is hopefully in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. 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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