AI talk: “The Genesis Machine” – Book review 

July 22, 2022 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

This week I am reviewing the book, “Genesis Machine” which outlines the contours of a mind blowing emerging technology – synthetic biology.  

DNA double helix

I have had “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology,” by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel in my audiobook collection for a few months now. Finally, I got around to reading it (or more accurately, listening to it) and it is definitely a fascinating read. Here is an excellent interview featuring one of the authors, Amy Webb, on the Carnegie Council podcast 

 I remember reading the Peter Diamandis book from a few years ago, “The Future is Faster Than You Think,” where he opines that the convergence of accelerating technologies will lead to significant breakthroughs in unexpected ways. That is definitely the case here. The technologies involved in this book are advances in synthetic biology and artificial intelligence (AI). This field got a significant boost with the breakthrough announced by the AI program from DeepMind, solving the 50-year grand challenge of biology: predicting the shape of proteins. 

 An alternative title for this book could very well have been, “Playing God.” Now, if that captures your attention, let’s dive into what this book covers. The authors seem to have taken a cue from the book “AI 2041” by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan. Like Kai-Fu Lee and Qiufan, they have included a series of speculative, science fiction scenarios to underscore how synthetic biology can potentially be used. I will summarize the book’s content in three sections – what the technology is, what is the promise of the technology and what are the potential perils. 

What is synthetic biology: It is a set of technologies that allow one to manipulate the structure of cells, primarily enabled by the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing technology. All animate objects – be it plant life or animal life forms — are made up of cells. The ability to change such cells essentially gives one the power to change the fundamental characteristic of all living things. This is what synthetic biology promises to deliver. 

Promise of synthetic biology: The authors explore a range of ideas about what this technology can do for humankind. Here are a few examples discussed in the book: 

  • Finding cures for any and all diseases that are the result of a mutated gene. This is the holy grail of synthetic biology and personalized medicine. 
  • The ability to grow human tissue and use it for repairing human organs. One could potentially live forever. Literally. 
  • The ability to grow meat of all kinds in labs – no animals needed. This is the technology behind foods like Impossible™ Burgers. 
  • The ability to convert plants and algae to biofuels instead of drilling for oil. 
  • The ability to harvest spider DNA and create microfibers that can be converted to silk. A similar approach can be taken with fibrous structures from fungi to make it into synthetic leather! 
  • Biofilms that can coat almost anything to make them harder to break – from phones to wearables to clothing. 
  • The ability to create genetically engineered shrubs used for common home landscaping so they absorb more CO2 than normal. This will help remove CO2 from the atmosphere and hopefully slow climate change. 

Potential perils: There are multiple risks associated with this technology and they are explored in the book as well – here are a few. 

  • Every application can have dual use, meaning it can be put to good use or could be used nefariously. The ability to develop vaccines for diseases also implies that the approach can be used to develop bioweapons.  
  • The ability to edit genes invitro implies one can develop designer babies. It can create a greater divide between the haves and have nots. The wealthy can customize their offspring to have a higher IQ, a certain color of eyes, etc. 
  • Living longer can create its own set of problems. Jobs may become scarce as people continue to work well past 100 years old.  
  • The creation of new lifeforms becomes possible, like combining human and neanderthal genomes. Presumably the intelligence of humans combined with the strength of neanderthal. We can only hope the order doesn’t get reversed. That is another of the major risk – biology can be unpredictable.   

In summary, we are embarking on a new frontier of biotechnology innovation. It is the wild west for synthetic biology. Regulation of this nascent industry is woefully behind. The trick is to incentivize the promise of the technology while mitigating the risks. That is a balancing act – one that must be done not unilaterally but as a global cooperative endeavor.  

Fascinating book. Fascinating technology. I am troubled and inspired at the same time. 

I am always looking for feedback and if you would like me to cover a story, please let me know! Leave me a comment below or ask a question on my blogger profile page. 

“Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.