In Talking to Robots: Tales From Our Human-Robot Futures (Dutton, 2019), science journalist David Ewing Duncan discusses a variety of future human-robot scenarios. In this edited excerpt, his unnamed narrator from the future explains the "history" of synthetic human biology by describing the work of Harvard scientist George Church.
Back in the early 21st century, George Church, at six foot five inches, towered over most unenhanced people. He also had a long, gray beard like a wizard from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Some people back then actually wondered if Church was a magician, given his steady output of mind-bending science from his lab at Harvard Medical School that poked and prodded DNA and delved into the biological, chemical, and digital secrets of life.
In contrast to those people back in the twenty-teens who advocated the idea of Homo digitalis--which suggested that humans might one day download their brains and essence into a computer--Church back then was devoted to keeping a flesh-and-blood body. "I'd like my robot to look like a human being," he said. "I like humans; I like myself as a human, although I think we can make healthier, more diverse, and more skillful humans."
This made sense for Church, a biologist, since he best understood and trusted the idea of bio-enhancing humans and was suspicious of going fully mechanical or digital, in part because many of the robots and A.I. systems of his era were still kind of clunky.
"We've got robots and computers that are supposedly beating humans at cognitive tasks," said Church. "I'm not impressed. They're winning at Go and Jeopardy!, but they're using 100 kilowatts of power to do that, and they're competing against humans who are using maybe 100 watts for the whole body and 20 watts for the brain; it's not even a close contest."
Progress Being Made
Church, back in the Early Robot Era (ERE), labored to make the syntheticis vision real in one of the largest and best-funded academic biomedical laboratories in the world, where, among other things, in 2017 he started to synthesize the first human genome built from scratch, designed on a computer and assembled using small stretches of custom-ordered DNA.
"We want to synthesize modified versions of all the genes in the human genome in the next few years," Church said. This meant that Church wasn't just synthesizing a copy of a human genome. He was redesigning it to be enhanced. At the time, Church was "recoding" a human genome to make cells using his synthetic genome resistant to viruses, "like HIV and hepatitis B," he said, and possibly the common cold. Other possible recodings included making cells and organisms highly resistant to radiation in space, or, one day, giving humans super strength or an IQ of 10,000.
Church was also using synthetic biology to grow mini-organs using stem cells, special cells that scientists can engineer to grow into any cell in the body. "We're making organs in dishes now," he said.
Another Church project back then was using DNA as storage. Church wanted to replace zeroes and ones and silicon wafers with nucleotides (ACGT) as the code, while using the double-helix superstructure of sugars and phosphates as the medium to store the data.
In 2012, he converted the words and images in his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (with Ed Regis) into genetic code. "Storing data in DNA has three advantages," explained Church. "One is that it's tiny, about a million times smaller than any other storage media. And it has a good longevity track record lasting at least seven hundred thousand years. Third, DNA has zero energy consumption during storage."
One day, according to Church, DNA might be used to store your experiences, too. "Can you imagine a cell that you put inside your brain that could be holding your memories?" he said. "What about an organoid brain that you just kind of grafted into your brain that you would program a certain way?"
If this wasn't enough, George Church was also working on technology that he claimed would reverse aging. "We're working on reversing aging by harvesting a pretty vast and rigorous literature on things that cause longevity or other desirable aging consequences in animals, genetic and other factors," he explained. "We want to see if you can turn this into gene therapies."
True to form, George Church started a company dedicated to reversing aging called Rejuvenate Bio--which back in the late twenty-teens was still very small and mostly in stealth mode as the scientists there worked to reverse aging in beagle--really--although there was no guarantee back then that their methods would work in either beagles or people.