One of the most exciting things I read recently was Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker. I knew very little about the life sciences and gene editing and I thought the book was an excellent primer on the topic. As the S-curve of the proliferation of the Information Age begins to flatten we will enter a new era driven by innovation in the life sciences. This is because we now have the ability to eradicate genetic diseases from the human race. Permanently. The implications are vast, but the biggest takeaway is that life as we know it is about to change forever. We can now determine what genes we have. It’s the stuff of science fiction. A generational breakthrough in human ingenuity with the potential to be both liberating and cataclysmic.
One of the things I loved about the book was the prevailing sentiment amongst scientists, especially Jennifer Doudna, that curiosity is a good in and of itself: “When you do curiosity-driven research, you never know what it may someday lead to…something that’s basic can later have wide consequences.” It’s remarkably similar to software in the sense that some of the most important innovations came to fruition simply because somebody was curious about something. And those inventions become accidental building blocks for some new previously unfathomable innovation. The scientists in the book are not motivated by money, or even glory (although they are fiercely competitive when it comes to acknowledgement for their contributions), but “the chance to unlock the mysteries of nature and use those discoveries to make the world a better place.”
Another element that stood out is that the life sciences, particularly gene editing, is becoming increasingly similar to software development. Molecules are becoming the new microchips. We now have tools that scientists say operate just like word processors because of how easy they are to use. The implications of having word processor-like interfaces to edit DNA are mind boggling. The technologies have progressed so much in the past two decades that biohackers can now conduct experiments from the comfort of their own homes.
It’s not a question of if we will use gene editing in the future. It’s already happening. Isaacson goes through all of the moral and philosophical implications of being able to edit DNA. It’s incredible that we can eradicate diseases that cause millions of people to suffer terribly. It’s also terrifying that people can self-select superficial physical attributes. It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to understand the inherent dangers here. That said, I believe that if we have the ability to eliminate genetic disorders that cause nothing but pain and death then we should. We should help people because we can. And as Isaacson’s subjects so deftly illustrate, we absolutely can do this.