On Thursday 15 May 2008, Jason Bobe wrote:
> Very nice article by Rob Carlson and collaborators on the future of
> synthetic biology.
> See especially the four scenarios in Table 1:
> (1) Underworld--A New Era of Prohibition
> (2) The Gilded Lab--Slow but Steady Progress
> (3) Modular Life--The Genovation Explosion
> (4) Barricades--A New Manhattan Project
> Blog post:
> http://synthesis.typepad.com/synthesis/2008/05/scenarios-for-t.html
> PDF:
> http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ind.2008.039

Hm. I found this article to be peculiar. So I'll throw in some commentary.

== On biotech and money ==

Page 2 mentions the exponential growth of synthetic biology and other related fields; no doubt this is because fundamentally cellular technologies are self-replicating. It mentions Money, but this is irrelevant since exponential self-replicating machines don't cost anything at all except resource accessibility [and there are lots of resources, even some that aren't on the planet]. So just be careful when talking about 'economies' and biology. Economists forget that their systems are built on biology and other physical systems, not the other way around.

== On 'biosecurity' ==

> Geopolitics: New security concerns. Security concerns, including
> worries about terrorism and weapons proliferation, are high on the US
> international political agenda and that of other nations. The focus
> on these issues could have significant implications for trade and
> other regulatory policies in areas of “dual-use” technologies,
> including biotechnology.

This is an outdated management philosophy and just simply doesn't work on the internet. No matter how strong ITER tried to be, there's still schematics of rockets floating around the internet. Same thing with biology. And another good reason this is true is because bacteria are very good carriers of genes. Whether or not the information is carried via genes or bits and bytes, the information is going to travel. Frankly, these "biosecurity" concerns are signs of *precautionary* approaches, when in truth proactionary approaches might be something more interesting to explore.


1. People’s freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.

2. Evaluate risk according to available science, not popular perception, and allow for common reasoning biases.

3. Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.

4. Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.

5. Estimate the lost opportunities of abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options, carefully considering widely distributed effects and follow-on effects.

6. Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.

7. When choosing among measures to restrict technological innovation, prioritize decision criteria as follows: Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.

== But really, security ==

It's not a hopeless subject. If you are concerned about sufficiently bleak futures, then why not work on technologies to serve as biofilters for people to wear and work with? Why not try to encourage them to investigate the chemicals within their foods? Within their diets, within their bodies? This is a much more personalized, responsible approach. But don't start fearing everything you touch. :)

== The economics of the future ==

* short mention of post-scarcity and how open source philanthropism is changing the scene without many people realizing it

== More ==

> How quickly will biological engineering advance? Researchers have
> been creating engineered biological systems for decades, with the
> benefit of steadily improving tools for constructing recombinant
> DNA molecules and analyzing genes and their functions. Yet the
> process remains costly, unpredictable, and often vexingly complex. It
> remains to be seen how quickly the new engineering approach to
> biology now being undertaken can achieve its goals.

The process isn't too costly, and what little cost remains is going downhill fast with the do-it-yourself DNA synthesizers, bioinstrumentation, etc. For example, you can do STM machines for $100 these days, or the very cheap polonator for gene sequencing [soon]. The complexity is going down as more tutorials and guides are written out there on the net. So the price arguments are getting kind of annoying.

> Will governments attempt to restrict access to advanced technolo-
> gy for biological engineering? The range of possible government
> actions is wide, and the outcomes could be event-driven if there were
> a major accident or national security crisis.

That's like saying you're going to stop bacteria from replicating. That's not going to happen. Maybe alternative strategies are needed, like backups and redundancy and making sure we're not all killed at once if something bad was to happen -- whether (unlikely) biological weapons, or asteroids that we otherwise don't see soon enough or prepare for soon enough, rather. Etc.

> Will the assertion of intellectual property rights slow innovation
> in the field of synthetic biology? Some experts see a significant
> risk that a race to establish patent rights to key biological parts
> could slow the progress of the emerging field of synthetic biology.
> It is uncertain whether patent reforms can or will address these
> problems.

It doesn't matter what patents do or say. Free, open source alternatives are being developed for these projects. So don't worry about that. Those guys are more or less stuck in the past, big changes are happening all over the place on those fronts.

> Will terrorists or governments use genome engineering techniques
> to create biological weapons? The use of genome engineering to cre-
> ate biological weapons could lead to severe restrictions on research
> in this field.

Uh, if malicious people *do* make biological weapons, then cutting research is a *bad* idea. You want to help *stop* the biological weapons from spreading, not help them. Cutting research means cutting off solutions. But you know what? People will do the research anyway, just like they code software anyway.

> Growing infectious disease threats to human and animal popula-
> tions. US mortality from infectious diseases began to increase in the
> 1980s, after trending downward for more than 100 years. Global
> emergence of new, largely zoonotic diseases is also on the rise.
> Concerns about the risk of an influenza pandemic has increased in
> recent years as outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza have appeared in
> bird populations around the world. Increased travel and the global
> trend toward urbanization will increase the interconnectedness of
> human populations.

Sounds like a good reason to let as many people as they want to become medical epidemiologists and medical scientists without formal training. So let them read stuff on the internet, let them participate and build equipment, let's not leave human lives in the hand of governments and corporations, we can do it [and if they want to help, that's great].

==== The Very Limited Scenario Logic ====
THE GILDED LAB: Public and private funding supports
laboratory research programs, but biological engineer-
ing meets challenging technical obstacles. Economic
implications are small. Investors are disappointed.

BARRICADES: Geopolitical tensions and security
concerns dominate government policy. Genome
engineering research is severely restricted, with
limited commercial activity. Government-funded
research is focused on biodefense.

MODULAR LIFE: Abundant entrepreneurial entry
and new product creation; application of
biological engineering in many sectors of the
economy; some applications create social
controversy and opposition.

easy/cheap side

UNDERWORLD: Like the Prohibition Era. Government
efforts to restrict the technology foster black
markets, hacker culture, and lots of unregulated
activity outside the US.

That doesn't sound like a good roadmap towards making sure we don't screw ourselves over. I mean, it basically says that the government only has one option (biodefense, which we know will not work), and that's just not good. We are here to help the situation, not to make it worse. So we know that political regulations aren't going to solve these issues. Only pure, hard-core tech. Oh, educational outreach is going to be good, yes. I agree there. But if the government wants to keep up with the tech sector, it's going to have to move fast, and reform isn't really something that these massive systems are good at. Sorry. It's just an engineering issue that everybody's been meaning to address for hundreds of years, and even before that, it's a commonly known problem. Now the question is whether or not the govt is going to use this against itself, or use it to its own advantage and try to get its act together in the face of, say, a technological singularity, without shooting everybody in the foot.

> “Open source” biology community. “Open source” access to a
> library of biological parts could provide a foundation for innovation,
> but the open source movement could be marginalized by other large
> players.

Eh? Marginalized? It's what people are seeing out there in the open. It's what you can actually go *read* about, rather than everything else which is more or less behind closed doors. Most people don't have subscriptions to scientific journals, so everything open access is what they are going to be reading, if anything at all.

> Overview of the scenarios
> The scenarios are framed by three critical uncertainties:
> • How will governments regulate genome synthesis and design
> technologies?

They will not be able to. That's like trying to regulate evolution.

> • How quickly will biological engineering advance?

However the people want it to. Nobody owns engineering.

> • How will public attitudes toward biotechnology evolve?

That's a good question. Let's not screw it up.

> Governments promote of genome
> engineering research and development.
> Patent reforms are adopted that are
> beneficial to synthetic biology. Government
> technology policies focus on economic
> value creation through innovation in
> biological technology.

Economics? Value creation? Eh. That's like saying you want to impose an economy on open source software. Or an economy on the mold on that piece of cheese I threw away a few weeks ago [it's long now in the local dumpster, if anybody was about to call me out on this ;-)].

> Crackdown on unauthorized biological research: Illegal activity
> flourishes
> Under new laws imposed to enforce the Biological Technology
> Convention, law enforcement organizations confiscate equipment,
> close laboratories, censor scientific publications, and restrict
> patents.
> Like the Prohibition Era of the 1930s, however, the effort to crack
> down fosters widespread illegal activity. International enforcement of
> the Convention is uneven, at best. The drug cartels, operating freely
> in some countries, adapt biotech approaches to synthesize narcotics,
> counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs, and other products in flourishing
> black markets in major cities in the developing world. These drugs
> are a significant source of revenue for terrorists, who also threaten
> the use of biological weapons. The world is increasingly caught
> between the tightening military and intelligence powers of the rich-
> est countries and the flourishing global networks of the illegal drug
> cartels and the underworld markets of urban slums.

Hm. It seems to me that this is just an issue of not taking responsibility for our own health. For example, I keep on mentioning technologies that we'll have to develop even before those scenarios so that we can be kept safe from those sort of harmful environmental agents, and it's a total drag, I know, but environmental filtering is already installed in many bio labs and many HVAC systems in buildings that you walk through every day, to some extent. Just more interesting filters might have to be installed.

> Key questions: How effectively could governments regulate the use
> of genome engineering technology? What would be the conse-
> quences of efforts to prohibit or severely restrict research in this
> field? What are the advantages and disadvantages of widely dif-
> fused access to the technology?

Governments can't regulate genome engineering technology, that's like saying the government is going to have to stop everybody from having sex. One way or another, these genes and bits and bytes are going to be flipped. It's a natural part of human life, and for governments to try to take it away is ridiculous.

To prohibit research? That would get pretty nasty. Imagine the scenarios when cops try to bust down a garage that has some harmful agents inside of it. How do they know what's in the environment? Okay, you say, send in robots. Really? It's pretty hard to purge environments that are infested with toxic bacteria. And they spread pretty easily. Dunno. Maybe instead of trying to reclaim land, we can try other solutions, like creating new environments and cut off those infected areas, kind of like a "tierring" of society based off of 'air purity'. But those scenarios can get nasty -- and fast.

> Two main problems slow the progress of synthetic biology. First,
> biological engineers find it difficult to insulate complex new genetic
> circuits from “cross-talk” with existing cellular pathways. Moreover,

In my research I'm not having much trouble overcoming crosstalk.

> Like the Internet bubble before it, however, the Biotech Boom col-
> lapses in 2010 when financial returns from new companies in the
> biotech sector fall short of expectations. Indices of leading biotech
> sector stocks decline by 50–80% as bad economic news compounds
> the downturn in the market. The decline leads to a significant con-
> solidation in the sector as a result of failures, mergers, and
> acquisitions. A small handful of major companies are able to
> consolidate strong positions in key segments of the industry. These
> companies dominate intellectual property in their respective domains.

Oh, please. Investment costs are decreasing radically, since the knowledge on how to build the equipment and purify the chemicals is proliferating and becoming increasingly applied. Leave the economy out of this. Debian would have costed $10 billion, but yet it occured 'for free'.

Ugh. They use the word 'bioeconomy'. Oh boy. I can imagine 20 years from now talking to a young school boy that I see hopping along the street:
Kid: "Hey, mister!"
Bryan: "Hey there."
Kid: "That's a pretty awesome plant there."
Bryan: "Yeah, it's a corn stalk."
Kid: "How much did it cost you?"
Bryan: "It just grew there."
Kid: "Yeah, but didn't you pay for it?"
Bryan: "No, not at all."
Kid: "So you stole it?"


Okay. That's it from me at the moment. Feel free to forward this to Aldrich, Newcomb, and/or Carlson at Bio Economic Research Associates, bioera.net, etc.

- Bryan