Master Classes
Event Date: [ 7.24.09 ]
Location:
United States

On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.

In this future — whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already — life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made. ...

George Dyson, from The Introduction

Edge Master Class 2009
George Church & J. Craig Venter

The Andaz, Los Angeles, CA, July 24-6, 2009

AN EDGE SPECIAL PROJECT

GEORGE CHURCH, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director, Center for Computational Genetics, and Science Advisor to 23 and Me, and J. CRAIG VENTER, Founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. and President of the J. Craig Venter Institute and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, taught the Edge Master Class 2009: "A Short Course In Synthetic Genomics" at The Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, the weekend of July 24th-26th. On Saturday the 25th the class traveled by bus to Space X near LAX, where Sessions 1-4 were taught by George Church. On Sunday, the Class was held at The Andaz in West Hollywood. Craig Venter taught Session 5 and George Church taught Session 6. The topics covered over the course of a rigorous 2-day progam of six lectures included:

What is life, origins of life, in vitro synthetic life, mirror-life, metabolic engineering for hydrocarbons & pharmaceuticals, computational tools, electronic-biological interfaces, nanotech-molecular-manufacturing, biosensors, accelerated lab evolution, engineered personal stem cells, multi-virus-resistant cells, humanized-mice, bringing back extinct species, safety/security policy.

The entire Master Class is available in high quality HD Edge Video (about 6 hours).

The Edge Master Class 2009 advanced the themes and ideas presented in the historic Edge meeting "Life: What A Concept!" in August 2007.


GEORGE M. CHURCH is Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Center for Computational Genetics; Science Advisor to 23andMe.

With degrees from Duke University in Chemistry and Zoology, he co-authored research on 3D-software & RNA structure with Sung-Hou Kim. His PhD from Harvard in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology with Wally Gilbert included the first direct genomic sequencing method in 1984; initiating the Human Genome Project then as a Research Scientist at newly-formed Biogen Inc. and a Monsanto Life Sciences Research Fellow at UCSF with Gail Martin.

He invented the broadly-applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and array DNA synthesizers. Technology transfer of automated sequencing & software to Genome Therapeutics Corp. resulted in the first commercial genome sequence (the human pathogen, H. pylori, 1994). He has served in advisory roles for 12 journals (including Nature Molecular Systems Biology), 5 granting agencies and 24 biotech companies (e.g. recently founding Codon Devices and LS9). Current research focuses on integrating biosystems-modeling with the Personal Genome Project & synthetic biology.

J. CRAIG VENTER is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century for his invaluable contributions in genomic research, most notably for the first sequencing and analysis of the human genome published in 2001 and the most recent and most complete sequencing of his diploid human in genome in 2007. In addition to his role at SGI, he is founder and chairman of the J. Craig Venter Institute. He was in the news last week with the announcement that SGI had received a $600 million investment from ExxonMobil to develop biofuels from algea.

Venter was the founder of Human Genome Sciences, Diversa Corporation and Celera Genomics. He and his teams have sequenced more than 300 organisms including human, fruit fly, mouse, rat, and dog as well as numerous microorganisms and plants. He is the author of A Life Decoded, as well as more than 200 research articles and is among the most cited scientists in the world. He is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, scientific awards and a member of many prestigious scientific organizations including the National Academy of Sciences.


INTRODUCTION: APE AND ESSENCE
By George Dyson

Sixty-one years ago Aldous Huxley published his lesser-known masterpiece, Ape and Essence, set in the Los Angeles of 2108. After a nuclear war (in the year 2008) devastates humanity's ability to reproduce high-fidelity copies of itself, a reversion to sub-human existence had been the result. A small group of scientists from New Zealand, spared from the catastrophe, arrives, a century later, to take notes. The story is presented, in keeping with the Hollywood location, in the form of a film script.

On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of the some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.

In this future — whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already— life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made.

The first day's lectures took place at Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket laboratories — where the latest Merlin and Kestrel engines (built with the loving care devoted to finely-tuned musical instruments) are unchanged, in principle, from those that Theodore von Karman was building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1948. The technology of biology, however, has completely changed.

Approaching Beverly Hills along Sunset Boulevard from Santa Monica, the first indications that you are nearing the destination are people encamped at the side of the road announcing "Star Maps" for sale. Beverly Hills is a surprisingly diverse community of interwoven lives, families, and livelihoods, and a Star Map offers only a rough approximation of where a few select people have their homes.

Synthetic Genomics is still at the Star Map stage. But it is becoming Google Earth much faster than most people think.

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.


"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.orghit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures. ... Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter. — Boston Globe


THE CLASS

Stewart Brand,Biologist, Long Now Foundation; Whole Earth Discipline 
Larry Brilliant, M.D. Epidemiologist, Skoll Urgent Threats Fund?
John Brockman, Publisher & Editor, Edge?
Max Brockman, Literary Agent, Brockman, Inc.; What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science
Jason Calacanis, Internet Entrepreneur, Mahalo?
George Dyson, Science Historian; Darwin Among the Machines?
Jesse Dylan, Film-Maker, Form.tv, FreeForm.tv?
Arie Emanuel, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment?
Sam Harris, Neuroscientist, UCLA; The End of Faith?
W. Daniel Hillis, Computer Scientist, Applied Minds; Pattern On The Stone?
Thomas Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Senior Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council?
Salar Kamangar, Vice President, Product Management, Google?
Lawrence Krauss, Physicist, Origins Initiative, ASU; Hiding In The Mirror?
John Markoff, Journalist,The New York Times; What The Dormouse Said?
Katinka Matson, Cofounder, Edge; Artist, katinkamatson.com?
Elon Musk, Physicist, SpaceX, Tesla Motors?
Nathan Myhrvold, Physicist, CEO, Intellectual Ventures, LLC, The Road Ahead
Tim O'Reilly, Founder, O'Reilly Media, O'Reilly Radar
Larry Page, CoFounder, Google?
Lucy Page Southworth,Biomedical Informatics Researcher, Stanford
Sean Parker,The Founders Fund; CoFounder Napster & Facebook ?
Ryan Phelan,Founder, DNA Direct
Nick Pritzker, Hyatt Development Corporation
Ed Regis, Writer; What Is Life?
Terrence Sejnowski, Computational Neurobiologist, Salk; The Computational Brain?
Maria Spiropulu,Physicist, Cern & Caltech?
Victoria Stodden, Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School
Richard Thaler, Behavioral Economist, U. Chicago; Nudge?
Craig Venter,Genomics Researcher; CEO, Synthetic Genomics,A Life Decoded?
Nathan Wolfe, Biologist, Global Virus Forecasting Initiative?
Alexandra Zukerman, Assistant Editor, Edge


SESSION 1 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Dreams & Nightmares [1:26]


SESSION 2 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Constructing Life from Chemicals [1:21]


SESSION 3 @ SPACEX [7.25.09]

Multi-enzyme, multi-drug, and multi-virus resistant life [1:06]


SESSION 4 @SPACEX [7.25.09]

Humans 2.0 [33.15]


SESSION 5 @ ANDAZ [7.26.09]

From Darwin to New Fuels (In A Very Short Time) [34:54]


SESSION 6 @ THE ANDAZ [7.26.09]

Engineering humans, pathogens and extinct species [40:35]


 

Thanks to Alex Miller and Tyler Crowley of Mahalo.com for shooting, editing, and posting the videos of the Edge Master Class 2009.

EDGE MASTER CLASS 2009 — PHOTO ALBUM


David Gross, Frank Schirrmacher, Lawrence Krauss, Denis Dutton, Tim O'Reilly, Ed Regis, Victoria Stodden, Jesse Dylan, George Dyson, Alexandra Zukerman

DAVID GROSS
Physicist, Director, Kavki Institute for Theoretical Physics, UCSB; Recipient 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics

"I should have accepted your invitation. I have been listening to the Master Class on the Web — fascinating. I am learning a lot and I wish I had been there. Thanks for the invite and thanks for putting up the videos. ... Invite me again..."

FRANK SCHIRRMACHER
Co-Publisher & Feuilleton Editor, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

I watched sessions 1 to 6. This is breathtaking. The Edge Master Class must have been spectacular and frightening. Now DNA and computers are reading each other without human intervention, without a human able to understand it. This is a milestone, and adds to the whole picture: we don't read, we will be read. What Edge has achieved collecting these great thinkers around is absolutley spectacular. Whenever I find an allusion to great writers or thinkers, I find out that they all are at Edge.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Director, Origins Initiative, ASU; Author, Hiding In The Mirror

What struck me was the incredible power that is developing in bioinformatics and genomics, which so resembles the evolution in computer software and hardware over the past 30 years.

George Church's discussion of the acceleration of the Moore's law doubling time for genetic sequencing rates,, for example, was extraordinary, from 1.5 efoldings to close to 10 efoldings per year. When both George and Craig independently described their versions of the structure of the minimal genome appropriate for biological functioning and reproduction, I came away with the certainty that artificial lifeforms will be created within the next few years, and that they offered great hope for biologically induced solutions to physical problems, like potentially buildup of greenhouse gases.

At the same time, I came away feeling that the biological threats that come with this emerging knowledge and power are far greater than I had previously imagined, and this issue should be seriously addressed, to the extent it is possible. But ultimately I also came away with a more sober realization of the incredible complexity of the systems being manipulated, and how far we are from actually developing any sort of comprehensive understanding of the fundamental molecular basis of complex life. The simple animation demonstrated at the molecular level for Gene expression and replication demonstrated that the knowledge necessary to fully understand and reproduce biochemical activity in cells is daunting.

Two other comments: (1) was intrigued by the fact that the human genome has not been fully sequenced, in spite of the hype, and (2) was amazed at the available phase space for new discovery, especially in forms of microbial life on this planet, as demonstrated by Craig in his voyage around the world, skimming the surface, literally, of the ocean, and of course elsewhere in the universe, as alluded to by George.

Finally, I also began to think that structures on larger than molecular levels may be the key ones to understand for such things as memory, which make the possibilities for copying biological systems seem less like science fiction to me. George Church and I had an interesting discussion about this which piqued my interest, and I intend to follow this up.

DENIS DUTTON
Philosopher; Founder & Editor, Arts & Letters Daily;Author, The Art Instinct

Astonishing.

TIM O'REILLY
Founder, O'Reilly Media, O'Reilly Radar

George Church asked "Is life a qualitative or quantitative question?" Every revolution in science has come when we learn to measure and count rather than asking binary qualitative questions. Church didn't mention phlogiston, but it's what came to mind as a good analogy. Heat is not the presence or absence of some substance or quality, but rather a measurable characteristic of a complex thermodynamic system. Might not the same be true of life? 

The measurement of self-replication as a continuum opens quantitative vistas. Here are a few tidbits from George Church and Craig Venter:

• The most minimal self-replicating system measured so far has 151 genes; bacteria and yeast about 4000; humans about 20,000.

• There are 12 possible amino acid bases (6 pairs); we ended up using 4 bases (2 pairs); other biological systems are possible.

• Humans are actually an ecology, not just an organism. The human microbiome: 23K human genes, 10K bacterial genes.

• Early estimates of the number of living organisms were limited to those that could be cultured in the laboratory; by sampling the DNA in water and soil, we have discovered that we undercounted by many orders of magnitude

• The biomass of bacteria deep in the earth is greater than the biomass of all visible plants and animals; ditto the biomass of ocean bacteria.

• The declining cost of gene sequencing is outpacing Moore's Law (1.5x/year): the number of base pairs sequenced per dollar is increasing at 10x per year.

Net: The current revolution in genomics and synthetic biology will be as profound as the emergence of modern chemistry and physics from medieval alchemy.

ED REGIS 
Writer; What Is Life?

Almost fifteen years ago, in a profile of Leroy Hood, I quoted Bill Gates, who said: "The gene is by far the most sophisticated program around."

At the Edge Master Class last weekend I learned the extent to which we are now able to reprogram, rework, and essentially reinvent the gene. This gives us a degree of control over biological organisms — as well as synthetic ones — that was considered semi-science fictional in 1995. Back then scientists had genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce insulin. At the Edge event, by contrast, Craig Venter was talking about bacteria that could convert coal into methane gas and others that could produce jet fuel. It was merely a matter of doing the appropriate genomic engineering: by replacing the genome of one organism with that of another you could transform the old organism into something new and better.

George Church, for his part, described the prospect of synthetic organisms grown from mirror-image DNA; humanized mice, injected with human genes so that they would produce antibodies that the human body would not reject; and the possibility of resurrecting extinct species including the woolly mammoth and Neanderthal man.

But as far-out as these developments were, none of them was really surprising. After all, science and technology operate by systematically gaining knowledge of the world and then applying it intelligently. Thus we skip from miracle to miracle.

More extraordinary to me personally was the fact that the first day of the EDGE event was being held on the premises of a private rocket manufacturing facility in Los Angeles, SpaceX, which also builds Tesla electric vehicles, all under the leadership of Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. The place was mildly unbelievable, even after having seen it with my own eyes. In the age of Big Science, where it is not uncommon for scientific papers to be written by forty or more coauthors, the reign of the individual is not yet dead.

VICTORIA STODDEN
Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School

Craig Venter posed the question whether it is possible to reconstruct life from its constituent parts. Although he's come close, he hasn't done it (yet?) and neither has anyone else. Aside from the intrinsic interest of the question, its pursuit seems to be changing biological research in two fundamental ways encapsulated Venter's own words:

We have these 20 millions genes. I view these as design components. We actually have software now for designing species, where we can try and put these components together. The biggest problem with engineering biology on first principles is that we don't know too many first principles. It's a minor problem! In fact, from doing this, if we build this robot that can make a million chromosomes a day, and a million transformations, and a million new species versions, it'll be the fastest way to establish what the first principles are, if we can track all that information and all the changes.           

Unlike physics or more mathematical fields, research in biology traditionally hasn't been a search for underlying principles, or had the explicit goal of developing grand unifying theories. A cynic could even argue funding incentives in biology encourage complexity: big labs are funded if they address very complicated, and thus more expensive to research, phenomena. Whether or not that's true, chemical reconstruction of the genome is a process from first principles, marking a change in approach that brings biological research closer in spirit to more technical fields. Venter seems to believe that answering questions such as, "Can we reconstruct life from its components?" "What genes are necessary for life?" "What do you really need to run cellular machinery?" and "What is a minimal organism that could survive?" will uncover first principles in biology, potentially structuring understanding deductively.            

Venter's use of combinatorial biological research is another potential sea-change in the way understanding is developed. This use of massive computing is analogous to that occurring in many other areas of scientific research, and the key is that discovery becomes less constrained by a priori assumptions or models (or understanding?).

Moore's Law and ever cheaper digital storage is giving scientists the luxury of solution search within increasingly large problem spaces. With complete search over the space of all possible solutions, in principle it is no longer necessary to reason one's way to the (an?) answer. This approach favors empirical evaluation over deductive reasoning. In Venter's biological context, presumably if automated search can find viable new species it will then be possible to investigate their unique life enabling characteristics. Perhaps through automated search?

JESSE DYLAN
Film-Maker, Form.tv, FreeForm.tv

What a revelation the The Master Class in Synthetic Genomics was. In addition to being informative on so many literal levels it reinforced the mystery and wonder of the world. George Church and Craig Venter were generous to give us a glimpse of where we are today and fire the imagination of where we are going. It's all science but seems beyond science fiction — living forever, reprogramming genes, resurrecting extinct species. All told at SpaceX — a place where people are reaching for the stars, not just thinking about it but building rockets to take us there. Where Elon Musk contemplates the vastness of space and our tiny place in it, where we gained a perspective on the things that are very small and beyond the vision of our eyes. So small it's a wonder we even know they are there. Thanks for giving us a profound glimpse into the future.

We are in such an early formative stage it makes one wonder where we will be in a hundred or even a thousand years. It's nice to be up against mysteries.

GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Darwin Among the Machines

End Of Species

We speak of reading and writing genomes — but no human mind can comprehend these lengthy texts. We are limited to snippet view in the library of life.

As Edge's own John Markoff reported from the recent Asilomar conference on artificial intelligence, the experts "generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet."

Who will ever write the code that ignites the spark? Craig Venter might be hinting at the answer when he tells us that "DNA... is absolutely the software of life." The language used by DNA is much closer to machine language than any language used by human brains. It should be no surprise that the recent explosion of coded communication between our genomes and our computers largely leaves us out.

"The notion that no intelligence is involved in biological evolution may prove to be one of the most spectacular examples of the kind of misunderstandings which may arise before two alien forms of intelligence become aware of one another," wrote viral geneticist (and synthetic biologist) Nils Barricelli in 1963. The entire evolutionary process "is a powerful intelligence mechanism (or genetic brain) that, in many ways, can be comparable or superior to the human brain as far as the ability of solving problems is concerned," he added in 1987, in the final paper he published before he died. "Whether there are ways to communicate with genetic brains of different symbioorganisms, for example by using their own genetic language, is a question only the future can answer."

We are getting close.

ALEXANDRA ZUKERMAN
Assistant Editor, Edge

As the meaning of George Church and Craig Venter's words permeated my ever-forming pre-frontal cortex at The Master Class, I cannot deny that I felt similarly to the way George Eliot described her own emotions in 1879. Eliot, speaking as Theophrastus in a little-known collection of essays published that year, predicts that evermore perfecting machines will imminently supercede the human race in "Shadows of the Coming Race:"

When, in the Bank of England, I see a wondrously delicate machine for testing sovereigns, a shrewd implacable little steel Rhadamanthus that, once the coins are delivered up to it, lifts and balances each in turn for the fraction of an instant, finds it wanting or sufficient, and dismisses it to right or left with rigorous justice; when I am told of micrometers and thermopiles and tasimeters which deal physically with the invisible, the impalpable, and the unimaginable; of cunning wires and wheels and pointing needles which will register your and my quickness so as to exclude flattering opinion; of a machine for drawing the right conclusion, which will doubtless by-and-by be improved into an automaton for finding true premises — my mind seeming too small for these things, I get a little out of it, like an unfortunate savage too suddenly brought face to face with civilisation, and I exclaim —

'Am I already in the shadow of the Coming Race? and will the creatures who are to transcend and finally supersede us be steely organisms, giving out the effluvia of the laboratory, and performing with infallible exactness more than everything that we have performed with a slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy?'1

Whereas Theophrastus' friend, Trost (a play on Trust) is confident that the human being is and will remain the "nervous center to the utmost development of mechanical processes" and that "the subtly refined powers of machines will react in producing more subtly refined thinking processes which will occupy the minds set free from grosser labour," Theophrastus feels "average" and less energetic, readily imagining his subjugation by these steely organisms giving out the "effluvia of the laboratory." He imagines instead that machines operate upon him, measuring his thoughts and quickness of mind. Micrometers, thermopiles and tasimeters were invading the sanctity of his consciousness with their "unconscious perfection."??As George Church told us that "We're getting to a point where we can really program these cells as if they were an extension of a computer" and "This software builds its own hardware — it turns out biology does this really well," my sensibilities felt slightly jarred. Indeed, I felt as though I might be from an uncivilized time and place, suddenly finding myself on the platform as a flying train whizzed past (in fact, our tour of SpaceX and Tesla by Elon Musk was not far off!).

I asked myself the same question as George Eliot posed to herself over one hundred years ago: If computing and genetics are converging, such that computers will be reading our genomes and perfecting them, has not Eliot's prediction come true? I wondered, as a historian of science, not as much about the implications of such a development, but more about why computers have become so powerful. Why do we trust, as Trost does, artificial intelligence so much? Will scientists ultimately give their agency over to computers as we get closer to mediating our genomes and that of other forms of life? Will computers and artificial intelligence become a new "invisible hand" such as that which guides the free market without human intervention? I am curious about the role computers will be playing, as humans grant them more and more hegemony.

___1George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such

LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Director, Origins Initiative, ASU; Author, Hiding In The Mirror

What struck me was the incredible power that is developing in bioinformatics and genomics, which so resembles the evolution in computer software and hardware over the past 30 years.

George Church's discussion of the acceleration of the Moore's law doubling time for genetic sequencing rates,, for example, was extraordinary, from 1.5 efoldings to close to 10 efoldings per year. When both George and Craig independently described their versions of the structure of the minimal genome appropriate for biological functioning and reproduction, I came away with the certainty that artificial lifeforms will be created within the next few years, and that they offered great hope for biologically induced solutions to physical problems, like potentially buildup of greenhouse gases.

At the same time, I came away feeling that the biological threats that come with this emerging knowledge and power are far greater than I had previously imagined, and this issue should be seriously addressed, to the extent it is possible. But ultimately I also came away with a more sober realization of the incredible complexity of the systems being manipulated, and how far we are from actually developing any sort of comprehensive understanding of the fundamental molecular basis of complex life. The simple animation demonstrated at the molecular level for Gene expression and replication demonstrated that the knowledge necessary to fully understand and reproduce biochemical activity in cells is daunting.

Two other comments: (1) was intrigued by the fact that the human genome has not been fully sequenced, in spite of the hype, and (2) was amazed at the available phase space for new discovery, especially in forms of microbial life on this planet, as demonstrated by Craig in his voyage around the world, skimming the surface, literally, of the ocean, and of course elsewhere in the universe, as alluded to by George.

Finally, I also began to think that structures on larger than molecular levels may be the key ones to understand for such things as memory, which make the possibilities for copying biological systems seem less like science fiction to me. George Church and I had an interesting discussion about this which piqued my interest, and I intend to follow this up.


FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG

15. August 2009?FEUILLETON

GENETIC ENGINEERING

THE CURRENT CATALOG OF LIFE [Der Aktuelle Katalog Der Schöpfung Ist Da] By Ed Regis

[ED. NOTE: Among the attendees of the recent Edge Master Class 2009 — A Short Course on Synthetic Genomics, was science writer Ed Regis (What Is Life?) who was commissioned by Frank Schirrmacher, Co-Publisher and Feuilleton Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to write a report covering the event. A German translation of Regis's article was published on August 15th by FAZ along with an accompanying article. The original English language version is published below with permission.]

In their futuristic workshops, the masters of the Synthetic Genomics, Craig Venter and George Church, play out their visions of bacteria reprogrammed to turn coal into methane gas and other microbes programmed to create jet fuel

14. August 2009 — John Brockman is a New York City literary agent with a twist: not only does he represent many of the world's top scientists and science writers, he's also founder and head of the Edge Foundation (www.edge.org), devoted to disseminating news of the latest advances in cutting-edge science and technology. Over the weekend of 24-26 July, in Los Angeles, Brockman's foundation sponsored a "master class" in which two of these same scientists — George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School, and Craig Venter, who helped sequence the human genome — gave a set of lectures on the subject of synthetic genomics. The event, which was by invitation only, was attended by about twenty members of America's technological elite, including Larry Page, co-founder of Google; Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft; and Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and head of SpaceX, a private rocket manufacturing and space exploration firm which is housed in a massive hangar-like structure near Los Angeles International Airport. The first day's session, in fact, was held on the premises of SpaceX, where the Tesla electric car is also built.

Synthetic genomics, the subject of the conference, is the process of replacing all or part of an organism's natural DNA with synthetic DNA designed by humans. It is essentially genetic engineering on a mass scale. As the participants were to learn over the next two days, synthetic genomics will make possible a variety of miracles, such as bacteria reprogrammed to turn coal into methane gas and other microbes programmed to churn out jet fuel. Still other genomic engineering techniques will allow scientists to resurrect a range of extinct creatures including the woolly mammoth and, just maybe, even Neanderthal man.

The specter of "biohackers" creating new infectious agents made its obligatory appearance, but synthetic genomic researchers are, almost of necessity, optimists. George Church, one of whose special topics was "Engineering Humans 2.0," told the group that "DNA is excellent programmable matter." Just as automated sequencing machines can read the natural order of a DNA molecule, automated DNA synthesizing machines can create stretches of deliberately engineered DNA that can then be placed inside a cell so as to modify its normal behavior. Many bacterial cells, for example, are naturally attracted to cancerous tumors. And so by means of correctly altering their genomes it is possible to make a species of cancer-killing bacteria, organisms that attack the tumor by invading its cancerous cells, and then, while still inside them, synthesizing and then releasing cancer-killing toxins. ??Church and his Harvard lab team have already programmed bacteria to perform each of these functions separately, but they have not yet connected them all together into a complete and organized system. Still, "we're getting to the point where we can program these cells almost as if they were computers," he said.

But tumor-killing microbes were only a small portion of the myriad wonders described by Church. Another was the prospect of "humanized" or — even "personalized" — mice. These are mammals whose genomes are injected with bits of human DNA for the purpose of getting the animals to produce disease-fighting antibodies that would not be rejected by humans. A personalized mouse, whose genome was modified with some of your very own genetic material, would produce antibodies that would not be rejected by your own body.

Beyond that is the possibility of creating synthetic organisms that would be resistant to a whole class of natural viruses. There are two ways of doing this, one of which involves creating DNA that is a mirror-image of natural DNA. Like many biological and chemical substances, DNA has a chirality or handedness, the property of existing in either left-handed or right-handed structural forms. In their natural state, most biological molecules including DNA and viruses are left-handed. But by artificially constructing right-handed DNA, it would be possible to make synthetic living organisms whose DNA is a mirror-image of the original. They would be resistant to conventional enzymes, parasites, and predators because their DNA would not be recognized by the mirror-image version. Such synthetic organisms would constitute a whole new "mirror-world" of living things.

Church is also founder and head of the Personal Genome Project, or PGP. The project's purpose, he said, is to sequence the genomes of 100,000 volunteers with the goal of opening up a new era of personalized medicine. Instead of today's standardized, one-size-fits-all collection of pills and therapies, the medicine of the future will be genomically tailored to each individual patient, and its treatments will fit him or her as well as a made-to-order suit of clothes. Church also speculated that knowledge of the idiosyncratic features that lurk deep within each of our genomes — genetic differences that give rise to every person's respective set of individuating traits — will bring us an unprecedented level of self-understanding, and, therefore, will allow us to chart a more intelligent and informed course through life.

Toward the end of the first day Elon Musk, for whom the word charismatic could have well been coined, described a genomic transformation of another type. While a video of his Falcon 1 rocket being launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific played in the background, Musk spoke about sending the human species to the planets. That might have seemed an unrealistic goal were it not for the fact that on 13 July, just twelve days prior to the Edge event, SpaceX had successfully launched another Falcon 1 rocket that had placed Malaysia's RazakSAT into Earth orbit. Earlier, competing against both Boeing and Lockheed, SpaceX had won NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition to resupply cargo to the International Space Station.

Then, like an emperor leading his subjects, Musk gave the conference attendees a tour of his spacecraft manufacturing facility. We saw the rocket engine assembly area, several launch vehicle components under construction, the mission operations area, and an example of the company's Dragon spacecraft, a pressurized capsule for the transport of cargo or passengers to the ISS.

"This is all geared to extending life beyond earth to a multiplanet civilization," Musk said of the spacecraft. Suddenly, his particular version of the future was no longer so unbelievable.

The leadoff speaker on the second and last day of the conference was J. Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer who more recently cofounded Synthetic Genomics Inc., an organization devoted to commercializing genomic engineering technologies. One of the challenges of synthetic genomics was to pare down organisms to the minimal set of genes needed to support life. Venter called this "reductionist biology," and said that a fundamental question was whether it would be possible to reconstruct life by putting together a collection of its smallest components.

Brewer's yeast, Venter discovered, could assemble fragments of DNA into functional chromosomes. He described a set of experiments in which he and colleagues created 25 small synthetic pieces of DNA, injected them into a yeast cell, which then proceeded to assemble the pieces into a chromosome. The trick was to design the DNA segments in such a way that the organism puts them together in the correct order. It was easy to manipulate genes in yeast, Venter found. He could insert genes, remove genes, and create a new species with new characteristics. In August 2007, he actually changed one species into another. He took a chromosome from one cell and put it into different one. "Changing the software [the DNA] completely eliminated the old organism and created a new one," Venter said.

Separately, Venter and his group had also created a synthetic DNA copy of the phiX virus, a small microbe that was not infectious to humans. When they put the synthetic DNA into an E. coli bacterium, the cell made the necessary proteins and assembled them into the actual virus, which in turn killed the cell that made it. All of this happened automatically in the cell, Venter said: "The software builds its own hardware."

These and other genomic creations, transformations, and destructions gave rise to questions about safety, the canonical nightmare being genomically engineered bacteria escaping from the lab and wreaking havoc upon human, animal, and plant. But a possible defense against this, Venter said, was to provide the organism with "suicide genes," meaning that you create within them a chemical dependency so that they cannot survive outside the lab. Equipped with such a dependency, synthetic organisms would pose no threat to natural organisms or to the biosphere. Outside the lab they would simply die.

That would be good news if it were true, because with funding provided by ExxonMobil, Venter and his team are now building a three to five square-mile algae farm in which reprogrammed algae will produce biofuels.

"Making algae make oil is not hard," Venter said. "It's the scalability that's the problem." Algae farms of the size required for organisms to become efficient and realistic sources of energy are expensive. Still, algae has the advantage that it uses CO2 as a carbon source — it actually consumes and metabolizes a greenhouse gas — and uses sunlight as an energy source. So what we have here, potentially, are living solar cells that eat carbon dioxide as they produce new hydrocarbons for fuel.

George Church had the final say in a lecture entitled "Engineering Humans 2.0." Human beings, he noted, are limited by a variety of things: by their ability to concentrate and remember, by the shortness of their lifespans, and so on. Genomic engineering could be used to correct all these deficiencies and more. The common laboratory mouse, he noted, had an average lifespan of 2.5 years. The naked mole rate, by contrast, lives ten times longer, to the ripe old age of 25. It would be possible to find the genes that contributed to the longevity of the naked mole rat, and by importing those genes into the lab mouse, you could slowly increase its longevity.

An analogous process could also be tried on human beings, increasing their lifespans and adding to their memory capacity, but the question was whether it was wise to do this. There were always trade-offs, Church said. You may engineer humans to have bigger and stronger bones, but only at the price if making them heavier and more ungainly. Malaria resistance is coupled with increased susceptibility to sickle cell anemia. And so on down the list. In a conference characterized by an excess of excess, Church provided a welcome cautionary note.

But then he proceeded to pull out all the stops an argued that by targeted genetic manipulation of the elephant genome it might be possible to resurrect the woolly mammoth. And by doing the same to the chimpanzee genome, scientists could possibly resurrect Neanderthal man.

"Why would anyone want to resurrect Neanderthal man?" a conference participant asked.

"To create a sibling species that would give us a fresh outlook on ourselves," Church answered. Humans were a monoculture, he said, and monocultures were biologically at risk.

His answer did not satisfy all of those present. "We already have enough Neanderthals in Washington," Craig Venter quipped, thereby effectively bringing the Edge Master Class 2009 to a close. ?

Ed Regisis the author of several science books, most recently, What Is Life? Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology


SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

August 13 , 2009

FEUILLETON

THE WALKMAN OF GENETIC ENGINEERING: THE MOVE FROM SCIENCE TO A NEW WORLD OF PRODUCTS

[Walkman der Gentechnik; Der Schritt von der Wissenschaft zu einer neuen Warenwelt]  By Andrian Kreye, Editor, The Feuilleton, Sueddeutsche Zeitung

...Genetic engineering is now at a point where computer science was around the mid-eighties. The early PCs were limited as to purpose and network. In two and a half decades, the computer has led us into a digial world in which every aspect of lives has been affected. According to Moore's Law, the performance of computers doubles every 18 months. Genetic engineering is following a similar growth. On the last weekend in July, Craig Venter and George Church met in Los Angeles to lead a seminar on synthetic genetic engineering for John Brockman's science forum Edge.org.

Genetic engineering under Church has been following the grwoth of computer science growing by a factor of tenfold per year. After all, the cost of sequencing a genome dropped from three billion dollars in 2000 to around $50 000 dollars as Stanford University's Dr. Steven Quake genomics engineer announced this week. 17 commercial companies already offer similar services. In June, a "Consumer Genetics" exhibition was held in Boston for the first time. The Vice President of Knome, Ari Kiirikki, assumes that the cost of sequencing a genome in the next ten years will fall to less than $1,000. In support for this development, the X-Prize Foundation has put up a prize of ten million dollars for the sequencing of 100 full genomes within ten days for the cost of less than $10,000 dollars per genome sequenced. ??It is now up to the companies themselves to provide an ethical and legal standing to commercial genetic engineering. The States of New York and California have already made the sale of genetic tests subject to a prescription. This is however only a first step is to adjust a new a new commercialized science which is about to cause enormous changes similar to those brought about be computer science. Medical benefits are likely to be enormous. Who knows about dangers in its genetic make-up, can preventive measures meet. The potential for abuse is however likewise given. Health insurances and employers could discriminate against with the DNS information humans. Above all however our self-understanding will change. Which could change, if synthetic genetic engineering becomes a mass market, is not yet foreseeable. For example, Craig Venter is working on synthetic biofuels. If successful, such a development would re-align technology, economics and politics in a fundamental way. Of one thing we can already be certain. The question of whether genetic engineering will becomes available for all is no longer on the table. It has already happened.


SPIEGEL ONLINE

13.08. 2009
FEUILLETON-PRESSESCHAU

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 13.08.2009

HEUTE IN DEN FEUILLETONS

Von aktuellen Entwicklungen aus der schönen neuen Welt der Genom-Sequenzierung berichtet Andrian Kreye: "Am letzten Juliwochenende trafen sich Craig Venter und George Church in Los Angeles, um für John Brockmans Wissenschaftsforum Edge.org ein Seminar über synthetische Gentechnik zu leiten. Die Gentechnik, so Church, habe die Informatik dabei längst hinter sich gelassen und entwickle sich mit einem Faktor von zehn pro Jahr. Immerhin - der Preis für die Sequenzierung eines Genoms ist von drei Milliarden Dollar im Jahr 2000 auf rund 50.000 Dollar gefallen, wie der Ingenieur der Stanford University Dr. Steven Quake diese Woche bekanntgab. 17 kommerzielle Firmen bieten ihre Dienste schon an."


Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 4.20.09 11:15 AM ]
Location:
United States

April 20, 2009 — Zilly Fish, London

Special Events
Event Date: [ 4.3.09 ]
Location:
AZ
United States

The Origins Initiative at ASU, under the leadership of its Director, physicist and Edge contributor Lawrence Krauss, is a University-wide initiative to focus on deep and foundational questions ranging across the entire spectrum of scholarship at ASU. The three-day Origins Symposium explored forefront questions at the edge of knowledge: from the origin of the universe and the laws of nature to the evolution of life, humans, consciousness, and culture. The symposium, which took place April 3-6 and consisted of private scientific seminars and large public lectures, was an intellectual extravaganza, a "Kraussfest", which assembled in one place a group containing the most well known scientific public intellectuals in the world, many of whom are well-known to readers of these pages.  

On the bus with Nobel Laureates David Gross, Wally Gilbert, Frank Wilczek

Among the Edgies at "Kraussfest 2009" were Roger Bingham, Patricia Churchland, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Rebecca Goldstein, A. C. Grayling, Brian Greene, David Gross, Alan Guth, Jonathan Haidt, Lawrence Krauss, John Mather, Randolph Nesse, Steven Pinker, Terrence Senjnowski, Maria Spiropulu, Craig Venter, Alex Vilenkin, Frank Wilczek.

Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 2.5.09 ]
Location:
CA
United States

"The crowd was sprinkled generously with those who had amassed wealth beyond imagining in a historical eye blink."
— Kara Swisher, Wall Street Journal 


The "Billionaires' Dinner" at TED: Readjusted for the 2009 Econalyspe
February 9, 2009
By Kara Swisher

Many years ago in the midst of the Web 1.0 boom, when working as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal,BoomTown redubbed an annual dinner that book agent John Brockman threw ... called the "Millionaires' Dinner," but I renamed it the "Billionaires' Dinner."That was due to the frothy fortunes that had been made at the time by the Internet pioneers, from Amazon to AOL to eBay. Well, despite the economic meltdown, there were still a lot of billionaires in attendance at Brockman's most recent dinner last Thursday in Long Beach.

Indeed, Brockman now calls the event the "Edge Dinner," after his lively Edge Web site, where he presides over a variety of eclectic online debates and discussions (in January, for example, the topic was: "DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?").

Since I managed to miss the fete entirely (embarrassing confession: I fell dead asleep at 7 p.m. and did not wake until the next morning) and could not chronicle it, Brockman allowed me to post some photos from the event taken by him and by former Microsoft research guru and current intellectual property mogul Nathan Myhrvold.
 


 

 

On the Road
Event Date: [ 1.27.09 ]
Location:
Germany

REFLECTIONS ON A CRISIS

Daniel Kahneman & Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A Conversation in Munich?
(Moderator: John Brockman)

Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman: Reflection on a Crisis from DLD on FORA.tv

View the complete 1-hour HD streaming video of the Edge event that took place at Hubert Burda Media's Digital Life Design Conference (DLD) in Munich on January 27th as the greatest living psychologist and the foremost scholar of extreme events discuss hindsight biases, the illusion of patterns, perception of risk, and denial.

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University, and Professor of Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work integrating insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty.

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB, essayist and former mathematical trader, is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. He is the author of Fooled by Randomness and the international bestseller The Black Swan.

Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page
Nassim Taleb's Edge Bio Page



FOCUS ONLINE
January 28, 2009

ARE BANKERS CHARLATANS

Sind Banker Scharlatane?

At blame for the financial crisis is the nature of man, say two renowned scientists: Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and bestselling author Nassim Taleb ( "The Black Swan").

By Ansgar Siemens, FOCUS online editor

Two men sitting on the stage. Left. Daniel Kahneman, 74, bright-eyed, Nobel Prize winner. Right Nassim Taleb, 49, former Wall Street banker, best-selling author. Both speak on the future of Digital Life Design Conference (DLD) in Munich on the financial crisis, about the beginning--mainly they talk about people. They say it is due to human nature, that the crisis has broken out. And they choose harsh words in discussing the scale of the disaster.

Kahneman explains why there are bubbles in the financial markets, even though everyone knows that they eventually burst. The researchers used the comparison with the weather: If there is little rain for three years, people begin to believe that this is the normal situation. If over the years stocks only increase, people can't imagine a break in this trend.

"Those responsible must go--today and not tomorrow"

Taleb speaks out sharply against the bankers. The people in control of taxpayer's money are spending billions of dollars. "I want those responsible for the crisis gone today, today and not tomorrow," he says, leaning forward vigorously. The risk models of banks are a plague, he says, the bankers are charlatans.

It is nonsense to think that we can assess risks and thus protect against a crash. Taleb has become famous with his theory of the black swan described in his eponymous bestsellers described. Black swans, which are events that are not previously seen--not even with the best model. "People will never be able to control a coincidence," he says.

The early warning

"Taleb had an early warning before the crisis. In 2003 he took note of the balance sheet of the U.S. mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae, and he saw "dynamite".

In autumn last year, the U.S. government instituted A dramatic bailout. Taleb said in the "Sunday Times" in 2008: "Bankers are very dangerous." And even now, he sees a scandal: He provocatively asks what have the banks done with the government bailout money. "They have paid out more bonuses, and they have increased their risks." And it was not their own money.

Taleb calls for rigorous changes: nationalize banks--and abolish financial models. Kahneman does not quite agree with him. Certainly, the models are not capable of predicting a collapse. But one should not ignore our human nature. People will always require and use models and get benefit from them--even if they are wrong.

Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 7.28.08 ]
Location:
United States

Master Classes
Event Date: [ 7.25.08 ]
Location:
United States

What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important. — Daniel Kahneman

Richard Thaler Sendhil Mullanthan Daniel Kahneman

Edge Master Class 2008 
Richard ThalerSendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman

Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008


A year ago, Edge convened its first "Master Class" in Napa, California, in which psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman taught a 9-hour course: "A Short Course On Thinking About Thinking". The attendees were a "who's who" of the new global business culture. 

This year, to continue the conversation, we invited Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, to organize and lead the class: "A Short Course On Behavioral Economics". Thaler asked Harvard economist and former student Sendhil Mullainathan, as well as Daniel Kahneman, to teach the class with him.

Thaler arrived arrived at Stanford in the 1970s to work with Kahneman and his late partner, Amos Tversky. Thaler, in turn, asked Harvard economist and former student Sendhil Mullainathan, as well as Kahneman, to teach the class with him.

The entire text is available online along with video highlights of the talks and a photo gallery. The text is also appears in a book privately published by Edge Foundation, Inc.

Nathan Myhrvold Jeff Bezos Elon Musk

Whereas last year, the focus was on psychology, this year the emphasis shifted to behavioral economics. As Kahneman noted:

...There's new technology emerging from behavioral economics and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished but clearly it's not!

The Master Class is the most recent iteration of Edge's development, which began its activities under than name "The Reality Club" in 1981. Edge's is different from The Algonquin, The Apostles, The Bloomsbury Group, or The Club, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. The closest resemblances are to The Invisible College and the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

The early seventeenth-century Invisible College was a precursor to the Royal Society. Its members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another example is the nineteenth-century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age—James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Benjamin Franklin.

In a similar fashion, Edge's, through its Master Classes, gathers together intellectuals and technology pioneers. In this regard, George Dyson, in his summary (below) of the second day of the proceedings, writes:

Retreating to the luxury of Sonoma to discuss economic theory in mid-2008 conveys images of Fiddling while Rome Burns. Do the architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook have anything to teach the behavioral economists—and anything to learn? So what? What's new?? As it turns out, all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years.

Sean Parker, CoFounder, Facebook Salar Kamangar, Google Evan Williams, CoFounder, Twitter

Indeed, as one distinguished European visitor noted, the weekend, which involved the 2-day Master Class in Sonoma followed by a San Francisco dinner, involved "a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture".

John Brockman, Editor

 

RICHARD H. THALER is the father of behavioral economics—the study of how thinking and emotions affect individual economic decisions and the behavior of markets. He investigates the implications of relaxing the standard economic assumption that everyone in the economy is rational and selfish, instead entertaining the possibility that some of the agents in the economy are sometimes human. Thaler is Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor (with Cass Sunstein) of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. 

Richard Thaler's Edge Bio Page

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN, a Professor of Economics at Harvard, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant", conducts research on development economics, behavioral economics, and corporate finance. His work concerns creating a psychology of people to improve poverty alleviation programs in developing countries. He is Executive Director of Ideas 42, Institute of Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University.

Sendhil Mullainathan's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN, a psychologist at Princeton University, is the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work integrating insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty. 

Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio page.


PARTICIPANTS: Jeff Bezos, Founder, Amazon.com; John Brockman, Edge Foundation, Inc.; Max Brockman, Brockman, Inc.; George Dyson, Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines; W. Daniel Hillis, Computer Scientist; Cofounder, Applied Minds; Author, The Pattern on the Stone; Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist; Nobel Laureate, Princeton University; Salar Kamangar, Google; France LeClerc, Marketing Professor; Katinka Matson, Edge Foundation, Inc.; Sendhil Mullainathan, Professor of Economics, Harvard University; Executive Director, Ideas 42, Institute of Quantitative Social Science; Elon Musk, Physicist; Founder, Tesla Motors, SpaceX; Nathan Myhrvold, Physicist; Founder, Intellectual Venture, LLC; Event Photographer; Sean Parker, The Founders Fund; Cofounder: Napster, Plaxo, Facebook; Paul Romer, Economist, Stanford; Richard Thaler, Behavioral Economist, Director of the Center for Decision Research, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business; coauthor of Nudge; Anne Treisman, Psychologist, Princeton University; Evan Williams, Founder, Blogger, Twitter.

Further Reading on Edge:
"A Short Course In Thinking About Thinking
Edge Master Class 2007
Daniel Kahneman
Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, CA, July 20-22, 2007


A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
CLASS ONE • CLASS TWO • CLASS THREE • CLASS FOUR • CLASS FIVE • CLASS SIX
PHOTO GALLERY
 


LIBERTARIAN PATERNALISM:  WHY IT IS IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO NUDGE 
(Class 1)
A Talk By Richard Thaler

Danny Hillis,Nathan Myhrvold ,Daniel Kahneman, Jeff Bezos, Sendhil Mullainathan

If you remember one thing from this session, let it be this one: There is no way of avoiding meddling. People sometimes have the confused idea that we are pro meddling. That is a ridiculous notion. It's impossible not to meddle. Given that we can't avoid meddling, let's meddle in a good way. —Richard Thaler


IMPROVING CHOICES WITH MACHINE READABLE DISCLOSURE
(Class 2)
A Talk ByRichard Thaler & Sendhil Mullainathan

 

 

Jeff Bezos, Nathan Myhrvold, Salar Kamangar, Daniel Kahneman, Danny Hillis, Paul Romer, Elon Musk, Sean Parker

At a minimum, what we're saying is that in every market where there is now required written disclosure, you have to give the same information electronically and we think intelligently how best to do that. In a sentence that's the nature of the proposal.—Richard Thaler


THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SCARCITY
(Class 3)
A Talk By Sendhil Mullainathan

Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, France LeClerc, Danny Hillis, Paul Romer, George Dyson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sean Parker

Let's put aside poverty alleviation for a second, and let's ask, "Is there something intrinsic to poverty that has value and that is worth studying in and of itself?" One of the reasons that is the case is that, purely aside from magic bullets, we need to understand are there unifying principles under conditions of scarcity that can help us understand behavior and to craft intervention. If we feel that conditions of scarcity evoke certain psychology, then that, not to mention pure scientific interest, will affect a vast majority of interventions. It's an important and old question.


TWO BIG THINGS HAPPENING IN PSYCHOLOGY TODAY
(Class 4)
A Talk By Daniel Kahneman

Danny Hillis,Richard Thaler,Nathan Myhrvold,Elon Musk, France LeClerc, Salar Kamangar, Anne Treisman, Sendhil Mullainathan, Jeff Bezos,Sean Parker

There's new technology emerging from behavioral economics and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished but clearly it's not!

THE REALITY CLUB

W. Daniel Hillis, Daniel Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler on "Two Big Things Happening In Psychology Today"


THE IRONY OF POVERTY
(Class 5)
A Talk By Sendhil Mullainathan

Daniel Kahneman, Paul Romer, Richard Thaler, Danny Hillis, Jeff Bezos, Sean Parker, Anne Treisman, France LeClerc, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson

I want to close a loop, which I'm calling "The Irony of Poverty." On the one hand, lack of slack tells us the poor must make higher quality decisions because they don't have slack to help buffer them with things. But even though they have to supply higher quality decisions, they're in a worse position to supply them because they're depleted. That is the ultimate irony of poverty. You're getting cut twice. You are in an environment where the decisions have to be better, but you're in an environment that by the very nature of that makes it harder for you apply better decisions.


PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
(Class 6)
A Talk By Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Sendhil Mullainathan

Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Sendhil Mullainathan, Sean Parker, Anne Treisman, Paul Romer,Danny Hillis, Jeff Bezos, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson, France LeClerc

There's new technology emerging from behavioral economics and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished but clearly it's not!


PHOTO GALLERY
Edge Master Class & San Francisco Dinner

Photo Gallery: A Short Course In Behavioral Economics (Below)

Photo Gallery: The San Francisco 2008 Science Dinner


INTRODUCTION
By Daniel Kahneman

Many people think of economics as the discipline that deals with such things as housing prices, recessions, trade and unemployment. This view of economics is far too narrow. Economists and others who apply the ideas of economics deal with most aspects of life. There are economic approaches to sex and to crime, to political action and to mass entertainment, to law, health care and education, and to the acquisition and use of power. Economists bring to these topics a unique set of intellectual tools, a clear conception of the forces that drive human action, and a rigorous way of working out the social implications of individual choices. Economists are also the gatekeepers who control the flow of facts and ideas from the worlds of social science and technology to the world of policy. The findings of educators, epidemiologists and sociologists as well as the inventions of scientists and engineers are almost always filtered through an economic analysis before they are allowed to influence the decisions of policy makers.

In performing their function as gatekeepers, economists do not only apply the results of scientific investigation. They also bring to bear their beliefs about human nature. In the past, these beliefs could be summarized rather simply: people are self-interested and rational, and markets work. The beliefs of many economists have become much more nuanced in recent decades, and the approach that goes under the label of “behavioral economics” is based on a rather different view of both individuals and institutions. Behavioral economics is fortunate to have a witty guru—Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Business School. (I stress this detail of his affiliation because the Economics Department of the University of Chicago is the temple of the “rational-agent model” that behavioral economists question.) Expanding on the idea of bounded rationality that the polymath Herbert Simon formulated long ago, Dick Thaler offered four tenets as the foundations of behavioral economics:

Bounded rationality

Bounded selfishness

Bounded self-control

Bounded arbitrage

The first three bounds are reasonably self-evident and obviously based on a plausible view of the psychology of the human agent. The fourth tenet is an observation about the limited ability of the market to exploit human folly and thereby to protect individual fools from their mistakes. The combination of ideas is applicable to the whole range of topics to which standard economic analysis has been applied—and at least some of us believe that the improved realism of the assumption yields better analysis and more useful policy recommendations.

Behavioral economics was influenced by psychology from its inception—or perhaps more accurately, behavioral economists made friends with psychologists, taught them some economics and learned some psychology from them. The little economics I know I learned from Dick Thaler when we worked together 25 years ago. It is somewhat embarrassing for a psychologist to admit that there is an asymmetry between the two disciplines: I cannot imagine a psychologist who could be counted as a good economist without formal training in that discipline, but it seems to be easier for economists to be good psychologists. This is certainly the case for both Dick and Sendhil Mullainathan—they know a great deal of what is going on in modern psychology, but more importantly they have superb psychological intuition and are willing to trust it.

Some of Dick Thaler’s most important ideas of recent years—especially his elaboration of the role of default options and status quo bias—have relied more on his flawless psychological sense than on actual psychological research. I was slightly worried by that development, fearing that behavioral economics might not need much input from psychology anymore. But the recent work of Sendhil Mullainathan has reassured me on this score as well as on many others. Sendhil belongs to a new generation. He was Dick Thaler’s favorite student as an undergraduate at Cornell, and his wonderful research on poverty is a collaboration with a psychologist, Eldar Shafir, who is roughly my son’s age. The psychology on which they draw is different from the ideas that influenced Dick. In the mind of behavioral economists, young and less young, the fusion of ideas from the two disciplines yields a rich and exciting picture of decision making, in which a basic premise—that the immediate context of decision making matters more than you think—is put to work in novel ways.

I happened to be involved in an encounter that had quite a bit to do with the birth of behavioral economics. More than twenty-five years ago, Eric Wanner was about to become the President of the Russell Sage Foundation—a post he has held with grace and distinction ever since. Amos Tversky and I met Eric at a conference on Cognitive Science in Rochester, where he invited us to have a beer and discuss his idea of bringing together psychology and economics. He asked how a foundation could help. We both remember my answer. I told him that this was not a project on which it was possible to spend a lot of money honestly. More importantly, I told him that it was futile to support psychologists who wanted to influence economics. The people who needed support were economists who were willing to be influenced. Indeed, the first grant that the Russell Sage Foundation made in that area allowed Dick Thaler to spend a year with me in Vancouver. This was 1983-1984, which was a very good year for behavioral economics. As the Edge Sonoma session amply demonstrated, we have come a long way since that day in a Rochester bar.

Daniel Kahneman


FIRST DAY SUMMARY—EDGE MASTER CLASS 2008
By Nathan Myhrvold

DR. NATHAN MYHRVOLD is CEO and managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm. Before Intellectual Ventures, Dr. Myhrvold spent 14 years at Microsoft Corporation. In addition to working directly for Bill Gates, he founded Microsoft Research and served as Chief Technology Officer.

Nathan Myhrvold's Edge Bio Page

____________________________

The recent Edge event on behavioral economics was a great success. Here is a report on the first day.

Over the course of the last few years we've been treated to quite a few expositions of behavioral economics—probably a dozen popular books seek to explain some aspect of the field. This isn't the place for a full summary but the gist is pretty simple. Classical economics has studied a society of creatures that Richard Thaler, an economist at University of Chicago dubs the "Econ". Econs are rather superhuman in some ways—they do everything by optimizing utility functions, paragons of bounded rationality. Behavioral economics is about understanding how real live Humans differ from Econs.

In previous reading, and an Edge event last year I learned the most prominent differences between Econs and Humans. Humans, as it turns out, are not always bounded rational—they can be downright irrational. Thaler likes to say that Humans are like Homer Simpson. Econs are like Mr. Spock. This is a great start, but to have any substance in economics one has to understand that in the context of economic situations. Humans make a number of systematic deviations from the Econ ideal, and behavioral economics has categorized a few of these. So, for example, we humans fear loss more than we love gain. Humans care about how a question is put to them—propositions that an Econ would instantly recognize as mathematically equivalent seem different to Humans and they behave differently.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate for his work in behavioral economics told us about priming—how a subtle influence radically shifts how people act. So, in one experiment people are asked to fill out a survey. In the corner of the room is a computer, with a screen saver running. That's it—nothing overt, just a background image in the room. If the screen saver shows pictures of money, the survey answers are radically different. Danny went through example after example like this where occurred. The first impulse one has in hearing this is no, this can't be the case. People can't be that easily and subconsciously influenced. You don't want to believe it. But Danny in his professorial way says, "Look, this is science. Belief isn't an option. Repeated randomized trials confirm the results. Get over it".??The second impression is perhaps even more surprising—the influences are quite predictable. Show people images of money, and they tend to be more selfish and less willing to help others. Make people plot points on graph paper that are far apart, and they act more distant in lots of way. Make them plot points that are close together, and damned if they don't act closer. Again, it seems absurd, but cheap metaphors capture our minds. Humans, it seems, are like drunken poets, who can't glimpse a screen saver in the corner, or plot some points on graph paper without swooning under the metaphorical load and going off on tangents these stray images inspire.

This is all very strange, but is it important? The analogy that seems most apt to me is optical illusions. An earlier generation of psychologists got very excited about how the low level visual processing in our brains is hardwired to produce paradoxical results. The priming stories seem to me to be the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent. The priming metaphors in optical illusions are the context of the image—the extra lines or arrows that fool us into making errors in judgment of sizes or shapes. While one can learn to recognize optical illusions, you can't help but see the effect for what it is. Knowing the trick does not lessen its intuitive impact. You really cannot help but think one line is longer, even if you know that the trick will be revealed in a moment.

I wonder how closely this analogy carries over. Danny said today that you couldn't avoid priming. If he is right perhaps the analogy is close; but perhaps it's not.

I also can't help but wonder how important these effects are to thinking and decision making in general. After the early excitement about optical illusions, they have retreated from prominence—they explain a few cute things in vision, but they are only important in very artificial cases. Yes, there are a few cases where product design, architecture and other visual design problems are impacted by optical illusions, but very few. In most cases the visual context is not misleading. So, while it offers an interesting clue to how visual processing works, it is a rare special case that has little practical importance.

Perhaps the same thing is true here—the point of these psychological experiments, like the illusions, is to isolate an effect in a very artificial circumstance. This is a great way to get a clue about how the brain works (indeed it would seem akin to Steven Pinker's latest work The Stuff of Thought which argues for the importance of metaphors in the brain). But is it really important to day-to-day real world thinking? In particular, can economics be informed by these experiments? Does behavioral economics produce a systematically different result that classical economics if these ideas are factored in?

I can imagine it both ways. If it is important, then we are all at sea, tossed and turned in a tumultuous tide of metaphors imposed by our context. That is a very strange world—totally counter to our intuition. But maybe that is reality.

Or, I could equally imagine that it only matters in cases where you create a very artificial experiment—in effect, turning up the volume on the noise in the thought process. In more realistic contexts the signal trumps the noise.

The truth is likely some linear combination of these two extreme—but what combination? There are some great experiments yet to be done to nail that down.

Dick Thaler gave a fascinating talk that tries to apply these ideas in a very practical way. There is an old debate in economics about the right way to regulate society. Libertarians would say don't try—the harm in reducing choice is worse than the benefit, in part because of unintended consequences, but mostly because the market will reach the right equilibrium. Marxist economists, at the other extreme, took it for granted that one needs a dictatorship of the proletariat—choice is not an option, at least for the populace. Thaler has a new creation—a concept he calls "libertarian paternalism" which tries to split the baby.

The core idea (treated fully in his book Nudge) is pretty simple—present plenty of options, but then encourage certain outcomes by using behavioral economics concepts to stack the deck. A classic example is the difference between opt-in and opt-out in a program such as organ donation. If you tell people that they can opt-in to donating their organs if they are killed, a few will feel strongly enough to do it—most people won't. If you switch that to opt-out the reverse happens—very few people opt out. Changing the "choice architecture" that people have changes choices. This is not going to work on people who feel strongly, but the majority doesn't really care and can be pushed in one direction or another by choice architecture.

A better example is a program called "save more tomorrow" (SMT), for 401K plans in companies. People generally don't save very much. So, the "save more tomorrow" program lets you decide up front to save a greater portion of promotions and raises. You are not cutting into today's income (to which you feel you are entitled to spend) but rather you are pre-allocating a future windfall. Seems pretty simple but there are dramatic increases in savings rates when it is instituted.

Dick came to the session loaded for bear, expecting the objections of classical economics. Apparently this is all very controversial among economists and policy wonks. It struck me as very clever, but once explained, very obvious. Of course you can put some spin on the ball and nudge people the right way using to achieve a policy effect. It's called marketing when you do this in business, and it certainly can matter. In the world of policy wonk economists this may be controversial, but it wasn't to me.

An interesting connection with the discussion of priming experiments is that many policy contexts are highly artificial—very much like experiments. Filling out a driver's license form is a kind of questionnaire, and the organ donation scenario seems very remote to most people despite the fact that they're making a binding choice. The mechanics of opt-in versus opt-out or required choice could matter a lot in these contexts.

Dick has a bunch of other interesting ideas. One of them is to require that government disclosures on things like cell phone plans, or credit card statements be machine-readable disclosure with a standard schema. This would allow web sites to offer automated comparisons, and other tools to help people understand the complexities.

This is a fascinating idea that could have a lot of merit. Dick is, from my perspective, a bit over optimistic in some ways—it is unclear that it will be overwhelming. An example is unit prices in grocery stores—those little labels on store shelves that tell you that Progesso canned tomatoes are 57 cents per pound, while the store brand is 43. Consumer advocates thought these would revolutionize consumer behavior—and perhaps they did in some limited ways. But premium brands didn't disappear.

I also differ on another point—must this be required by government, and would it be incorruptible were it so mandated. In the world of technology most standards are de facto, rather than de juris, and are driven by private owners (companies or private sector standards bodies), because the creation and maintenance of a standard is a dynamic balancing act—not static one. I think that many of the disclosure standards he seeks would be better done this way. Conversely, a government mandate disclosure standard might become so ossified by changing slowly that it did not achieve the right result. Nevertheless, this is a small point compared to the main idea, which is that machine-readable disclosures with standardized schema allow third party analysis and enables a degree of competition that would harder to achieve by other means.

Sendhil Mullainathan gave a fascinating talk about applying behavior economics to understand poverty. If this succeeds (it is a work in progress) it would be extremely important.

He showed a bunch of data on itinerant fruit vendors (all women) in India. 69% of them are constantly in debt to moneylenders who charge 5% per day interest. The fruit ladies make 10% per day profit, so half their income goes to the moneylender. They also typically buy a couple cups of tea per day. Sendhil shows that 1-cup of tea per day less would let them be debt free in 30 days, doubling their income. 31% of these women have figured that out, so it is not impossible. Why don't the rest get there?

Sendhil then showed a bunch of other data arguing that poor people—even those in the US (who are vastly richer in absolute scale than his Indian fruit vendors)—do similar things with how they spend food stamps, or use of payday loans. He was very deliberate at drawing this out, until I finally couldn't stand it and blurted out "you're saying that they all have high discount rate". His argument is that under scarcity there is a systematic effect that you put the discount rate way too high for your own good. With too high a discount rate, you spend for the moment, not for the future. So, you have a cup a tea rather than double your income.

He is testing this with an amazing experiment. What would these women do if they could escape the "debt trap"? Bono, Jeffery Sachs and others have argued this point for poor nations—this is the individual version of the proposition.

Sendhil is studying 1000 of these fruit vendors (all women). Their total debt is typically $25 each, so he is just stepping in and paying off the debt for 500 of them! The question is then to see how many of them revert to being in debt over time, versus the 500 who are studied, but do not have their debt paid off. The experiment is underway and he has no idea what the result will be.

The interesting thing here is that, for these people, one can do a meaningful experiment (N = 500 gives good statistics) without much money in absolute. It would be hard to do this experiment with debt relief for poor nations, or even the US poor, but in India you can do serious field experiments for little money.

Sendhil also has an amusing argument, which is that very busy people are exactly like these poor fruit vendors. If you have very little time, it is scarce and you are as time-poor as the fruit ladies are cash-poor. So, you act like there is a high discount—and you commit to future events—like agreeing to travel and give a talk. Then as the time approaches, you tend to regret it and ask, "Why did I agree to this?" So you act like there is a high discount rate. This got everybody laughing. The difference here is that time can't be banked or borrowed, so it is unclear to me how close an analogy it is, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Indeed, I almost cancelled my attendance at this event right before hand, thinking, "why did I agree to this? I don't have the time!" After much wrestling I decided I could attend the first day, but no more. Well, this is one of those times when having the "wrong" discount rate is in your favor. I'm very glad I attended.

—Nathan Myhrvold


SECOND DAY SUMMARY—EDGE MASTER CLASS 2008
By George Dyson

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.

George Dyson's Edge Bio Page

____________________________

The weekend master class on behavioral economics was productive in unexpected ways, and a lot of good ideas and thoughts about implementing them were exchanged.

Day 2 (Sunday) opened with a session led by Sendhil Mullainathan, followed by a final wrap-up discussion before we adjourned at noon. Elon Musk, Evan Williams, and Nathan Myhrvold had departed early. In the absence of Nathan's high-resolution record, a brief summary, with editorial comments, is given here.

"I refuse to accept however, the stupidity of the Stock Exchange boys, as an explanation of the trend of stocks," wrote John von Neumann to Stanislaw Ulam, on December 9, 1939. "Those boys are stupid alright, but there must be an explanation of what happens, which makes no use of this fact." This question led von Neumann (with the help of Oskar Morgenstern) to his monumental Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, a precise mathematical structure demonstrating that a reliable economy can be constructed out of unreliable parts.

The von Neumann and Morgenstern approach (developed further by von Neumann's subsequent Probabilistic Logics and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms From Unreliable Components) assumes that human unreliability and irrationality (by no means excluded from their model) will, in the aggregate, be filtered out. In the real world, however, irrational behavior (including the "stupidity of the stock exchange boys") is not completely filtered out. Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, and their colleagues are developing an updated theory of games and economic behavior that does make use of this fact.

Sendhil Mullainathan opened the first hour, on the subject of scarcity, by repeating the first day's question: what is it that prevents the fruit vendors (who borrow their working capital daily at high interest) from saving their way out of recurring debt? According to Sendhil, many vendors do manage to escape, but a core-group remains trapped.

Sendhil shows a graph with $$ on the X-axis and Temptation on the Y-axis. The curve starts out flat and then ascends steeply upward before leveling off. The dangerous area is the steep slope when a person begins to acquire disposable income and meets rapidly increasing temptations. "To understand the behavior you have to understand the scale." Thaler interjects: "It's a mental accounting problem—but I think everything is a mental accounting problem." All human beings are subject to temptation, but the consequences are higher for the poor. Conclusion: temptation is a regressive tax.

Paul Romer notes that the temptation of time is a progressive tax, since time, unlike money, is evenly distributed, and wealthy people, no matter how well supplied with money, believe they have less spare time. Bottom line: the effects of temptation do not scale with income.

How best to intervene? Daniel Kahneman notes: "Some cultures have solved that problem... there seems to be a cultural solution." Sendhil, whose field research may soon have some answers, believes that lending at lower interest rates may help but will not solve the problem, and adds: "It would be better for the micro-financiers to come in and offer money at the same rate as the existing lenders, and then make the payoff in some other ways." The problem is the chronic effects of poverty, not the lending institutions (or lack thereof).

Sendhil moves the discussion to the subject of "depletion"—when judgment deteriorates due to the effects of stress. Clinical studies and real-world examples are described. Mental depletion correlates strongly with high serum cortisol (measurable in urine) and low glucose. Poverty produces chronic depletion, and decisions are impaired. High-value decisions are made under conditions of high stress. This results in what Sendhil terms the scarcity trap.

During the mid-morning break (with cookies), Richard Thaler shows videos from a 40-year-old study (Walter Mischel, 1973) of children offered one cookie now or two if they wait. The observed behavior correlates strongly, by almost any measure, with both the economic success of the parents and the child's future success. Hypothesis: small behavioral shifts might produce (or "nudge") large economic results.

After the break we begin to wrap things up. Richard Thaler suggests a "nudge" model of the world. The same way a digital camera has both an "expert mode" and an "idiot mode," what the economy needs is an "idiot mode" resistant to experts making mistakes.

Thaler notes that Government is really bad at building systems that can be operated in "idiot mode"—just compare private sector websites vs. public sector. Imagine if the Government had designed the user interface for Amazon!

Sendhil makes a final comment that elicits agreement all around: "R&D in the poverty space has huge potential returns and there is too little thinking about that."

Daniel Kahneman concludes: "There's new technology emerging from Behavioral Economics and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished but clearly it's not!" The meeting adjourns.

My personal conclusions: retreating to the luxury of Sonoma to discuss economic theory in mid-2008 conveys images of Fiddling while Rome Burns. Do the architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook have anything to teach the behavioral economists—and anything to learn? So what? What's new?? As it turns out, all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years. More wealth is flowing ever more quickly, and can be monitored and influenced in real time. Models can be connected directly to the real world (for instance, Sendhil's field experiment, using real money to remove real debt, observing the results over time). The challenge is how to extend the current economic redistribution as efficiently (and beneficently) as possible to the less wealthy as well as the wealthy of the world.

A time of misguided economic decisions, while bad for many of us, is a good time for behavioral economics. As Abraham Flexner argued (26 September 1931) when urging the inclusion of a School of Economics at the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study: "The plague is upon us, and one cannot well study plagues after they have run their course." All the more so amidst the plagues of 2008.

It was Louis Bamberger's wish (23 April 1934), upon granting Abraham Flexner's request, that "the School of Economics and Politics may contribute not only to a knowledge of these subjects but ultimately to the cause of social justice which we have deeply at heart."

—George Dyson
 

Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 2.25.08 ]
Location:
Indian Summer Restaurant
Monterey, CA
United States

"The crowd was sprinkled generously with those who had amassed wealth beyond imagining in a historical eye blink." — The Wall Street Journal


 

Seminars
Event Date: [ 8.25.07 ]
Location:
United States

"Life/Consists of propositions about life."
—Wallace Stevens ("Men Made Out Of Words")

"I just read the Life transcript book and it is fantastic. One of the better books I've read in a while. Super rich, high signal to noise, great subject."
— Kevin Kelly, Editor-At-Large, Wired

"The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that Life: What A Concept was one of those memorable events that people in years to come will see as a crucial moment in history. After all, it's where the dawning of the age of biology was officially announced."
— Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung

EDGE PUBLISHES "LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!" TRANSCRIPT AS DOWNLOADABLE PDF BOOK [1.14.08]

Edge is pleased to announce the online publication of the complete transcript of this summer's Edge event, Life: What a Concept! as a 43,000- word downloadable PDF Edgebook.

The event took place at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT on Monday, August 27th (see below). Invited to address the topic "Life: What a Concept!" were Freeman DysonJ. Craig VenterGeorge ChurchRobert ShapiroDimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd, who focused on their new, and in more than a few cases, startling research, and/or ideas in the biological sciences.


      pdf download (click here)

 

Reporting on the August event, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton (Arts & Ideas) Editor ofSüddeutsche Zeitung wrote:

"Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture. It is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce, he claims. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA."

Jordan Mejias, Arts Correspondent of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, noted that:

"These are thoughts to make jaws drop...Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze."

The following Edge feature on the "Life: What a Concept!" August event includes a photo album; streaming video; and html files of each of the individual talks).


In April, Dennis Overbye, writing in the New York Times "Science Times", broke the story of the discovery by Dimitar Sasselov and his colleagues of five earth-like exo-planets, one of which "might be the first habitable planet outside the solar system".

At the end of June, Craig Venter has announced the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another. In talking to Edge about the research, Venter noted the following:

Now we know we can boot up a chromosome system. It doesn't matter if the DNA is chemically made in a cell or made in a test tube. Until this development, if you made a synthetic chomosome you had the question of what do you do with it. Replacing the chomosome with existing cells, if it works, seems the most effective to way to replace one already in an existing cell systems. We didn't know if it would work or not. Now we do. This is a major advance in the field of synthetic genomics. We now know we can create a synthetic organism. It's not a question of 'if', or 'how', but 'when', and in this regard, think weeks and months, not years.

In July, in an interesting and provocative essay in New York Review of Books entitled"Our Biotech Future", Freeman Dyson wrote:

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery o life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

It's clear from these developments as well as others, that we are at the end of one empirical road and ready for adventures that will lead us into new realms.

This year's Annual Edge Event took place at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT on Monday, August 27th. Invited to address the topic "Life: What a Concept!" were Freeman DysonJ. Craig VenterGeorge ChurchRobert ShapiroDimitar Sasselov, andSeth Lloyd, who focused on their new, and in more than a few cases, startling research, and/or ideas in the biological sciences.

Physicist Freeman Dyson envisions a biotech future which supplants physics and notes that after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. He refers to an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer, a subject explored in his abovementioned essay.

Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome, surprised the world in late June by announcing the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another.

George Church, the pioneer of the Synthetic Biology revolution, thinks of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc.

Biologist Robert Shapiro disagrees with scientists who believe that an extreme stroke of luck was needed to get life started in a non-living environment. He favors the idea that life arose through the normal operation of the laws of physics and chemistry. If he is right, then life may be widespread in the cosmos.

Dimitar Sasselov, Planetary Astrophysicist, and Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, has made recent discoveries of exo-planets ("Super-Earths"). He looks at new evidence to explore the question of how chemical systems become living systems.

Quantum engineer Seth Lloyd sees the universe as an information processing system in which simple systems such as atoms and molecules must necessarily give rise complex structures such as life, and life itself must give rise to even greater complexity, such as human beings, societies, and whatever comes next.

A small group of journalists interested in the kind of issues that are explored on Edgewere present: Corey Powell, Discover, Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,Heidi Ledford, Nature, Greg Huang, New Scientist, Deborah Treisman, New Yorker,Edward Rothstein, New York Times, Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Antonio Regalado, Wall Street Journal. Guests included Heather Kowalski, The J. Craig Venter Institute, Ting Wu, The Wu Lab, Harvard Medical School, and the artist Stephanie Rudloe. Attending for Edge: Katinka MatsonRussell WeinbergerMax Brockman, andKarla Taylor.

We are witnessing a point in which the empirical has intersected with the epistemological: everything becomes new, everything is up for grabs. Big questions are being asked, questions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet. And don't even try to talk about religion: the gods are gone.

Following the theme of new technologies=new perceptions, I asked the speakers to take a third culture slant in the proceedings and explore not only the science but the potential for changes in the intellectual landscape as well.

We are pleased to present the transcripts of the talks and conversation along with streaming video clips (links below).

— JB




FREEMAN DYSON

 

The essential idea is that you separate metabolism from replication. We know modern life has both metabolism and replication, but they're   carried out by separate groups of molecules. Metabolism is carried out by proteins and all kinds of other molecules, and replication is carried out by DNA and RNA. That maybe is a clue to the fact that   they started out separate rather than together. So my version of the origin of life is that it started with metabolism only.

FREEMAN DYSON

 

FREEMAN DYSON: First of all I wanted to talk a bit about origin of life. To me the most interesting question in biology has always been how it all got started. That has been a hobby of mine. We're all equally ignorant, as far as I can see. That's why somebody like me can pretend to be an expert.

I was struck by the picture of early life that appeared in Carl Woese's article three years ago. He had this picture of the pre-Darwinian epoch when genetic information was open source and everything was shared between different organisms. That picture fits very nicely with my speculative version of origin of life.

The essential idea is that you separate metabolism from replication. We know modern life has both metabolism and replication, but they're carried out by separate groups of molecules. Metabolism is carried out by proteins and all kinds of small molecules, and replication is carried out by DNA and RNA. That maybe is a clue to the fact that they started out separate rather than together. So my version of the origin of life is it started with metabolism only. ...

[...continued]

___

FREEMAN DYSON is professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and astronomy. Among his many books are Disturbing the Universe, Infinite in All Directions Origins of Life, From Eros to Gaia, Imagined Worlds, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, and most recently A Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe.

Freeman Dyson's Edge Bio Page


CRAIG VENTER

 

I have come to think of life in much more a gene-centric view than even a genome-centric view, although it kind of oscillates.  And when we talk about the transplant work, genome-centric becomes more important than gene-centric. From the first third of the Sorcerer II expedition we discovered roughly 6 million new genes that has doubled the number in the public databases when we put them in a few months ago, and in 2008 we are likely to double that entire number again.  We're just at the tip of the iceberg of what the divergence is on this planet. We are in a linear phase of gene discovery maybe in a linear phase of unique biological entities if you call those species, discovery, and I think eventually we can have databases that represent the gene repertoire of our planet.

One question is, can we extrapolate back from this data set to describe the most recent common ancestor. I don't necessarily buy that there is a single ancestor. It’s counterintuitive to me. I think we may have thousands of recent common ancestors and they are not necessarily so common.

J. CRAIG VENTER

J. CRAIG VENTER: Seth's statement about digitization is basically what I've spent the last fifteen years of my career doing, digitizing biology. That's what DNA sequencing has been about. I view biology as an analog world that DNA sequencing has taking into the digital world . I'll talk about some of the observations that we have made for a few minutes, and then I will talk about once we can read the genetic code, we've now started the phase where we can write it. And how that is going to be the end of Darwinism.

On the reading side, some of you have heard of our Sorcerer II expedition for the last few years where we've been just shotgun sequencing the ocean. We've just applied the same tools we developed for sequencing the human genome to the environment, and we could apply it to any environment; we could dig up some soil here, or take water from the pond, and discover biology at a scale that people really have not even imagined.

The world of microbiology as we've come to know it is based on over a hundred year old technology of seeing what will grow in culture. Only about a tenth of a percent of microbiological organisms, will grow in the lab using traditional techniques. We decided to go straight to the DNA world to shotgun sequence what's there; using very simple techniques of filtering seawater into different size fractions, and sequencing everything at once that's in the fractions. ...

[...continued]

___

J. CRAIG VENTER is one of leading scientists of the 21st century for his visionary contributions in genomic research. He is founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute. The Venter Institute conducts basic research that advances the science of genomics; specializes inhuman genome based medicine, infectious disease, environmental genomics and synthetic genomics and synthetic life, and explores the ethical and policy implications of genomic discoveries and advances.  The Venter Institute employes more than 400 scientist and staff in Rockville, Md and in La Jolla, Ca. He is the author of A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.

Craig Venter's Edge Bio Page


GEORGE CHURCH

Many of the people here worry about what life is, but maybe in a slightly more general way, not just ribosomes, but inorganic life. Would we know it if we saw it? It's important as we go and discover other worlds, as we start creating more complicated robots, and so forth, to know, where do we draw the line?

GEORGE CHURCH

GEORGE CHURCH: We've heard a little bit about the ancient past of biology, and possible futures, and I'd like to frame what I'm talking about in terms of four subjects that elaborate on that. In terms of past and future, what have we learned from the past, how does that help us design the future, what would we like it to do in the future, how do we know what we should be doing? This sounds like a moral or ethical issue, but it's actually a very practical one too.

One of the things we've learned from the past is that diversity and dispersion are good. How do we inject that into a technological context? That brings the second topic, which is, if we're going to do something, if we have some idea what direction we want to go in, what sort of useful constructions we would like to make, say with biology, what would those useful constructs be? By useful we might mean that the benefits outweigh the costs — and the risks.  Not simply costs, you have to have risks, and humans as a species have trouble estimating the long tails of some of the risks, which have big consequences and unintended consequences. So that's utility. 1) What we learn from the future and the past 2) the utility 3) kind of a generalization of life.

Many of the people here worry about what life is, but maybe in a slightly more general way, not just ribosomes, but inorganic life. Would we know it if we saw it? It's important as we go and discover other worlds, as we start creating more complicated robots, and so forth, to know, where do we draw the line? I think that's interesting. And then finally — that's kind of generalizational life, at a basic level — but 4) the kind of life that we are particularly enamored of — partly because of egocentricity, but also for very philosophical reasons — is intelligent life. But how do we talk about that? ...

[...continued]

___

GEORGE CHURCH is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics. He invented the broadly applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and array DNA synthesizers. Technology transfer of automated sequencing & software to Genome Therapeutics Corp. resulted in the first commercial genome sequence (the human pathogen, H. pylori,1994). He has served in advisory roles for 12 journals, 5 granting agencies and 22 biotech companies. Current research focuses on integrating biosystems-modeling with personal genomics & synthetic biology.

George Church's Edge Bio Page


ROBERT SHAPIRO

 

I looked at the papers published on the origin of life and decided that it was absurd that the thought of nature of its own volition putting together a DNA or an RNA molecule was unbelievable.

I'm always running out of metaphors to try and explain what the difficulty is. But suppose you took Scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters, containing every language on Earth, and you heap them together and you then took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there, and the letters fell into a line which contained the words “To be or not to be, that is the question,” that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback — and there would be no feedback, because it wouldn't be functional until it attained a certain length and could copy itself — appearing on the Earth.

ROBERT SHAPIRO

ROBERT SHAPIRO: I was originally an organic chemist — perhaps the only one of the six of us — and worked in the field of organic synthesis, and then I got my PhD, which was in 1959, believe it or not. I had realized that there was a lot of action in Cambridge, England, which was basically organic chemistry, and I went to work with a gentleman named Alexander Todd, promoted eventually to Lord Todd, and I published one paper with him, which was the closest I ever got to the Lord. I then spent decades running a laboratory in DNA chemistry, and so many people were working on DNA synthesis — which has been put to good use as you can see — that I decided to do the opposite, and studied the chemistry of how DNA could be kicked to Hell by environmental agents. Among the most lethal environmental agents I discovered for DNA — pardon me, I'm about to imbibe it — was water. Because water does nasty things to DNA. For example, there's a process I heard you mention called DNA animation, where it kicks off part of the coding part of DNA from the units — that was discovered in my laboratory.

Another thing water does is help the information units fall off of DNA, which is called depurination and ought to apply only one of the subunits — but works under physiological conditions for the pyrimidines as well, and I helped elaborate the mechanism by which water helped destroy that part of DNA structure. I realized what a fragile and vulnerable molecule it was, even if was the center of Earth life. After water, or competing with water, the other thing that really does damage to DNA, that is very much the center of hot research now — again I can't tell you to stop using it — is oxygen. If you don't drink the water and don't breathe the air, as Tom Lehrer used to say, and you should be perfectly safe. ...

[...continued]

___

ROBERT SHAPIRO is professor emeritus of chemistry and senior research scientist at New York University. He has written four books for the general public: Life Beyond Earth (with Gerald Feinberg); Origins, a Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth; The Human Blueprint (on the effort to read the human genome); and Planetary Dreams (on the search for life in our Solar System).

Robert Shapiro Edge Bio Page


DIMITAR SASSELOV

Is Earth the ideal planet for life? What is the future of life in our universe? We often imagine our place in the universe in the same way we experience our lives and the places we inhabit. We imagine a practically static eternal universe where we, and life in general, are born, grow up, and mature; we are merely one of numerous generations.

This is so untrue! We now know that the universe is 14 and Earth life is 4 billion years old: life and the universe are almost peers. If the universe were a 55-year old, life would be a 16-year old teenager. The universe is nowhere close to being static and unchanging either.

Together with this realization of our changing universe, we are now facing a second, seemingly unrelated realization: there is a new kind of planet out there which have been named super-Earths, that can provide to life all that our little Earth does. And more.

DIMITAR SASSELOV

DIMITAR SASSELOV: I will start the same way, by introducing my background. I am a physicist, just like Freeman and Seth, in background, but my expertise is astrophysics, and more particularly planetary astrophysics. So that means I'm here to try to tell you a little bit of what's new in the big picture, and also to warn you that my background basically means that I'm looking for general relationships — for generalities rather than specific answers to the questions that we are discussing here today.

So, for example, I am personally more interested in the question of the origins of life, rather than the origin of life. What I mean by that is I'm trying to understand what we could learn about pathways to life, or pathways to the complex chemistry that we recognize as life. As opposed to narrowly answering the question of what is the origin of life on this planet. And that's not to say there is more value in one or the other; it's just the approach that somebody with my background would naturally try to take. And also the approach, which — I would agree to some extent with what was said already — is in need of more research and has some promise.

One of the reasons why I think there are a lot of interesting new things coming from that perspective, that is from the cosmic perspective, or planetary perspective, is because we have a lot more evidence for what is out there in the universe than we did even a few years ago. So to some extent, what I want to tell you here is some of this new evidence and why is it so exciting, in being able to actually inform what we are discussing here. ...

[...continued]

___

DIMITAR SASSELOV is Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. Most recently his research has led him to explore the nature of planets orbiting other stars. Using novel techniques, he has discovered a few such planets, and his hope is to use these techniques to find planets like Earth. He is the founder and director of the new Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, a multidisciplinary center bridging scientists in the physical and in the life sciences, intent to study the transition from chemistry to life and its place in the context of the Universe.

Dimitar Sasselov's Edge Bio Page


SETH LLOYD

If you program a computer at random, it will start producing other computers, other ways of computing, other more complicated, composite ways of computing. And here is where life shows up. Because the universe is already computing from the very beginning when it starts, starting from the Big Bang, as soon as elementary particles show up. Then it starts exploring — I'm sorry to have to use anthropomorphic language about this, I'm not imputing any kind of actual intent to the universe as a whole, but I have to use it for this to describe it — it starts to explore other ways of computing.

SETH LLOYD

SETH LLOYD: I'd like to step back from talking about life itself. Instead I'd like to talk about what information processing in the universe can tell us about things like life. There's something rather mysterious about the universe. Not just rather mysterious, extremely mysterious. At bottom, the laws of physics are very simple. You can write them down on the back of a T-shirt: I see them written on the backs of T-shirts at MIT all the time, even in size petite. IN addition to that, the initial state of the universe, from what we can tell from observation, was also extremely simple. It can be described by a very few bits of information.

So we have simple laws and simple initial conditions. Yet if you look around you right now you see a huge amount of complexity. I see a bunch of human beings, each of whom is at least as complex as I am. I see trees and plants, I see cars, and as a mechanical engineer, I have to pay attention to cars. The world is extremely complex.

If you look up at the heavens, the heavens are no longer very uniform. There are clusters of galaxies and galaxies and stars and all sorts of different kinds of planets and super-earths and sub-earths, and super-humans and sub-humans, no doubt. The question is, what in the heck happened? Who ordered that? Where did this come from? Why is the universe complex? Because normally you would think, okay, I start off with very simple initial conditions and very simple laws, and then I should get something that's simple. In fact, mathematical definitions of complexity like algorithmic information say, simple laws, simple initial conditions, imply the state is always simple. It's kind of bizarre. So what is it about the universe that makes it complex, that makes it spontaneously generate complexity? I'm not going to talk about super-natural explanations. What are natural explanations — scientific explanations of our universe and why it generates complexity, including complex things like life? ...

[...continued]

___

SETH LLOYD is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and Director of the W.M. Keck Center for Extreme Quantum Information Theory (xQIT). He works on problems having to do with information and complex systems from the very small—how do atoms process information, how can you make them compute, to the very large — how does society process information? And how can we understand society in terms of its ability to process information? He is the author if Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos.

Seth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page



FRANKFURTER 
August 31,.2007

FEUILLETON — Front Page

 

Let's play God!; Life's questions: J. Craig Venter programs the future(Lasst uns Gott spielen!)By Jordan Mejias

Was Evolution only an interlude?  At the invitation of John Brockman, science luminaries such as J. Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Robert Shapiro and others discussed the question: What is Life? 

EASTOVER FARM, August 30th

It sounds like seaman's yarn that the scientist with the look of an experienced seafarer has in store for us. The suntanned adventurer with the close-clipped grey beard vaunts the ocean as a sea of bacteria and viruses, unimaginable in their varieties. And in their lifestyle, as we might call it. But what do organisms live off? Like man, not off air or love alone. There can be no life without nutrients, it is said. Not true, says the sea dog. Sometimes a source of energy is enough, for instance, when energy is abundantly provided by sunlight. Could that teach us anything about our very special form of life?

J. Craig Venter, the ingenious decoder of the genome, who takes time off to sail around the world on expeditions, balances his flip-flops on his naked feet as he tells us about such astounding phenomena of life. Us, that means a few hand-picked journalists and half a dozen stars of science, invited by John Brockman, the Guru of the all encompassing "Third Culture", to his farm in Connecticut.

Relaxed, always open for a witty remark, but nevertheless with the indispensable seriousness, the scientific luminaries go to work under Brockman's direction. He, the master of the easy, direct question that unfailingly draws out the most complicated answers, the hottest speculations and debates, has for today transferred his virtual salon, always accessible on the Internet under the name Edge, to a very real and idyllic summer's day. This time the subject matter is nothing other than life itself.

When Venter speaks of life, it's almost as if he were reading from the script of a highly elaborate Science Fiction film. We are told to imagine organisms that not only can survive dangerous radiations, but that remain hale and hearty as they journey through the Universe. Still, he of all people, the revolutionary geneticist, warns against setting off in an overly gene-centric direction when trying to track down Life. For the way in which a gene makes itself known, will depend to a large degree upon the aid of overlooked transporter genes. In spite of this he considers the genetic code a better instrument to organize living organisms than the conventional system of classification by species.

Many colleagues nod in agreement, when they are not smiling in agreement. But this cannot be all that Venter has up his sleeve. Just a short while ago, he created a stir with the announcement that his Institute had succeeded in transplanting the genome of one bacterium into another. With this, he had newly programmed an organism. Should he be allowed to do this?  A question not only for scientists. Eastover Farm was lacking in ethicists, philosophers and theologians, but Venter had taken precautions. He took a year to learn from the world's large religions whether it was permissible to synthesize life in the lab. Not a single religious representative could find grounds to object. All essentially agreed: It's okay to play God.

Maybe some of the participants would have liked to hear more on the subject, but the day in Nature's lap was for identifying themes, not giving and receiving exhaustive amounts of information. A whiff of the most breathtaking visions, both good and bad, was enough. There were already frightening hues in the ultimate identity theft, to which Venter admitted with his genome exchange. What if a cell were captured by foreign DNA? Wouldn't it be a nightmare in the shape of a genuine Darwinian victory of the strong over the weak? Venter was applying dark colors here, whereas Freeman Dyson had painted us a much more mellow picture of the future.

Dyson, the great, not yet quite eighty-four year old youngster, physicist and futurist, regards evolution as an interlude. According to his calculations, the competition between species has gone on for just three billion years. Before that, according to Dyson, living organisms participated in horizontal gene transfers; if you will, they preferred the peaceful exchange of information among themselves. In the ten thousand years since Homo sapiens conquered the biosphere, Dyson once again sees a return of the old Modus Operandi, although in a modified form.

The scenario goes as follows: Cultural evolution, characterized by the transfer of ideas, has replaced the much slower biological evolution. Today, ideas, not genes, tip the scales. In availing himself of biotechnology, Man has picked up the torn pre-evolutionary thread and revived the genetic back and forth between microbes, plants and animals. Bit by bit the borders between species are disappearing. Soon only one species will remain, namely the genetically modified human, while the rules of Open Source, which guarantee the unhindered exchange of software in computers, will also apply to the exchange of genes. The evolution of life, in nutshell, will return soon to a state of agreeable unity, as it existed in good old pre-Darwinian times, when life had not yet been separated into distinct species.

Though Venter may not trust in this future peace, he nearly matches Dyson in his futuristic enthusiasm. But he is enough of a realist to stress that he has never talked of creating new life from scratch. He is confident that he can develop new species and life forms, but will always have to rely on existing materials that he finds. Even he cannot conjure a cell out of nothing. So far, so good and so humble.

The rest is sheer bravado. He considers manipulation of human genes not only possible, but desirable. There's no question that he will continue to disappoint the inmate who once asked him to fashion an attractive cellmate, just as he refused the wish of an unsavory gentleman who yearned for mentally underdeveloped working-class people. But, Venter asks, who can object to humans having genetically beefed-up Intelligence? Or to new genomes that open the door to new, undreamt-of sources of bio fuel?  Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze.

All the same, Venter does confess that such life transforming technology, more powerful than any, humanity could harness until now, inevitably plunges him in doubt, particularly when looking back on human history. Still, he looks toward the future with hope and confidence. As does George Church, the molecular geneticist from Harvard, who wouldn't be surprised if a future computer would be able outperform the human brain. Could resourcefully mixed DNA be helpful to us?  The organic chemist Robert Shapiro, Emeritus of New York University, objects strongly to viewing DNA as a monopolistic force. Will he assure us, that life consists of more than DNA?  But of what? Is it conceivable that there are certain forms of life we still are unable to recognize?  Who wants to confirm that nothing runs without DNA?  Why should life not also arise from minerals???These are thoughts to make jaws drop, not only among laymen. Venter also is concerned that Shapiro defines life all too loosely. But both, the geneticist and the chemist focus on the moment at which life is breathed into an inanimate object. This will be, in Venter's opinion, the next milestone in the investigation and conditioning of life. We can no longer beat around the bush: What is Life? Venter declines to answer, he doesn't want to be drawn into philosophical bullshit, as he says. Is a virus a life form? Must life, in order to be recognized as life, be self-reproducing? A colorful butterfly glides through the debate. Life can appear so weightless. And it is so difficult to describe and define.

Seth Lloyd, the quantum mechanic from MIT points out mischievously that we know far more about the origin of the universe than we do about the origin of life. Using the quantum computer as his departing point, he tries to give us an idea of the huge number of possibilities out of which life could have developed. If Albert Einstein did not wish to envisage a dice-playing god, Lloyd, the entertaining thinker, can't help to see only dice-playing, though presumably without the assistance of god. Everything reveals itself in his life panorama as a result of chance, whether here on Earth or in an incomprehensible distance

Astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov works also under the auspices of chance. Although his field of research necessarily widens our perspective, he can present us only a few places in the universe that could be suitable for life. Only five Super-Earths, as Sasselov calls those planets that are larger than Earth, are known to us at this point. With improved recognition technologies, perhaps a hundred million could be found in the universe in all. No, that is still, distributed throughout and applied to the entire universe, not a grand number. But the number is large enough to give us hope for real co-inhabitants of our universe. Somewhere, sometime, we could encounter microbial life. 

Most likely this would be life in a form that we cannot even fathom yet. It will all depend on what we, strange life forms that we are, can acknowledge as life. At Eastover Farm our imaginative powers were already being vigorously tested.

Text: F.A.Z., 31.08.2007, No. 202 / page 33

Translated by Karla taylor

 


SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
September 3, 2007
FEUILLETON — Front Page

 

DARWIN WAS JUST A PHASE?(Darwin war nur eine Phase)Country Life in Connecticut: Six scientists find the future in genetic engineering??By Andrian Kreye

The origins of life were the subject of discussion on a summer day when six pioneers of science convened at Eastover Farm in Connecticut. The physicist and scientific theorist Freeman Dyson was the first of the speakers to talk on the theme: "Life: What a Concept!" An ironic slogan for one of the most complex problems. Seth Lloyd, quantum physicist at MIT, summed it up with his remark that scientists now know everything about the origin of the Universe and virtually nothing about the origin of life. Which makes it rather difficult to deal with the new world view currently taking shape in the wake of the emerging age of biology.

The roster of thinkers had assembled at the invitation of literary agent John Brockman, who specializes in scientific ideas. The setting was distinguished. Eastover Farm sits in the part of Connecticut where the rich and famous New Yorkers who find the beach resorts of the Hamptons too loud and pretentious have settled. Here the scientific luminaries sat at long tables in the shade of the rustling leaves of maple trees, breaking just for lunch at the farmhouse.

The day remained on topic, as Brockman had invited only half a dozen journalists, to avoid slowing the thinkers down with an onslaught of too many layman's questions. The object was to have them talk about ideas mainly amongst themselves in the manner of a salon, not unlike his online forum edge.org. Not that the day went over the heads of the non-scientist guests. With Dyson, Lloyd, genetic engineer George Church, chemist Robert Shapiro, astronomer Dimitar Sasselov and biologist and decoder of the genome J. Craig Venter, six men came together, each of whom have made enormous contributions in interdiscplinary sciences, and as a consequence have mastered the ability to talk to people who are not well-read in their respective fields. This made it possible for an outsider to follow the discussions, even if at moments, he was made to feel just that, as when Robert Shapiro cracked a joke about RNA that was met with great laughter from the scientists.

Freeman Dyson, a fragile gentleman of 84 years, opened the morning with his legendary provocation that Darwinian evolution represents only a short phase of three billion years in the life of this planet, a phase that will soon reach its end. According to this view, life began in primeval times with a haphazard assemblage of cells, RNA-driven organisms ensued, which, in the third phase of terrestrial life would have learned to function together. Reproduction appeared on the scene in the fourth phase, multicellular beings and the principle of death appeared in the fifth phase.

The End of Natural Selection

We humans belong to the sixth phase of evolution, which progresses very slowly by way of Darwinian natural selection. But this according to Dyson will soon come to an end, because men like George Church and J. Craig Venter are expected to succeed not only in reading the genome, but also in writing new genomes in the next five to ten years. This would constitute the ultimate "Intelligent Design", pun fully intended. Where this could lead is still difficult to anticipate. Yet Freeman Dyson finds a meaningful illustration. He spent the early nineteen fifties at Princeton, with mathematician John von Neuman, who designed one of the earliest programmable computers. When asked how many computers might be in demand, von Neumann assured him that 18 would be sufficient to meet the demand of a nation like the United States. Now, 55 years later, we are in the middle of the age of physics where computers play an integral role in modern life and culture.

Now though we are entering the age of biology. Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture. It is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce, he claims. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA.

Venter, a suntanned giant with the build of a surfer and the hunting instinct of a captain of industry, understands the magnitude of this feat in microbiology. And he understands the potential of his research to create biofuel from bacteria. He wouldn't dare to say it, but he very well might be a Bill Gates of the age of biology. Venter also understands the moral implications. He approached bioethicist Art Kaplan in the nineties and asked him to do a study on whether in designing a new genome he would raise ethical or religious objections. Not a single religious leader or philosopher involved in the study could find a problem there. Such contract studies are debatable. But here at Eastover Farm scientists dream of a glorious future. Because science as such is morally neutral—every scientific breakthrough can be applied for good or for bad.

The sun is already turning pink behind the treetops, when Dimitar Sasselov, the Bulgarian astronomer from Harvard, once more reminds us how unique and at the same time, how unstable the balance of our terrestrial life is. In our galaxy, astronomers have found roughly one hundred million planets that could theoretically harbor organic life. Not only does Earth not have the best conditions among them; it is actually at the very edge of the spectrum. "Earth is not particularly inhabitable," he says, wrapping up his talk. Here J. Craig Venter cannot help but remark as an idealist: "But it is getting better all the time".

Translated by Karla Taylor

 


 

Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Jordan MejiasFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung



RICHARD DAWKINS—FREEMAN DYSON: AN EXCHANGE

As part of this year's Edge Event at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT, I invited three of the participants—Freeman Dyson, George Church, and Craig Venter—to come up a day early, which gave me an opportunity to talk to Dyson about his abovementioned essay in New York Review of Books entitled "Our Biotech Future".

I also sent the link to the essay to Richard Dawkins, and asked if he would would comment on what Dyson termed the end of "the Darwinian interlude".

Early the next morning, prior to the all-day discussion (which also included as participants Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd) Dawkins emailed his thoughts which I read to the group during the discussion following Dyson's talk. [NOTE: Dawkins asked me to make it clear that his email below "was written hastily as a letter to you, and was not designed for publication, or indeed to be read out at a meeting of biologists at your farm!"].

Now Dyson has responded and the exchange is below.

JB


RICHARD DAWKINS [8.27.07]Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author, The God Delusion

"By Darwinian evolution he [Woese] means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species."

"With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them."

These two quotations from Dyson constitute a classic schoolboy howler, a catastrophic misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. Darwinian evolution, both as Darwin understood it, and as we understand it today in rather different language, is NOT based on the competition for survival of species. It is based on competition for survival WITHIN species. Darwin would have said competition between individuals within every species. I would say competition between genes within gene pools. The difference between those two ways of putting it is small compared with Dyson's howler (shared by most laymen: it is the howler that I wrote The Selfish Gene partly to dispel, and I thought I had pretty much succeeded, but Dyson obviously hasn't read it!) that natural selection is about the differential survival or extinction of species. Of course the extinction of species is extremely important in the history of life, and there may very well be non-random aspects of it (some species are more likely to go extinct than others) but, although this may in some superficial sense resemble Darwinian selection, it is NOT the selection process that has driven evolution. Moreover, arms races between species constitute an important part of the competitive climate that drives Darwinian evolution. But in, for example, the arms race between predators and prey, or parasites and hosts, the competition that drives evolution is all going on within species. Individual foxes don't compete with rabbits, they compete with other individual foxes within their own species to be the ones that catch the rabbits (I would prefer to rephrase it as competition between genes within the fox gene pool).

The rest of Dyson's piece is interesting, as you'd expect, and there really is an interesting sense in which there is an interlude between two periods of horizontal transfer (and we mustn't forget that bacteria still practise horizontal transfer and have done throughout the time when eucaryotes have been in the 'Interlude'). But the interlude in the middle is not the Darwinian Interlude, it is the Meiosis / Sex / Gene-Pool / Species Interlude. Darwinian selection between genes still goes on during eras of horizontal transfer, just as it does during the Interlude. What happened during the 3-billion-year Interlude is that genes were confined to gene pools and limited to competing with other genes within the same species. Previously (and still in bacteria) they were free to compete with other genes more widely (there was no such thing as a species outside the 'Interlude'). If a new period of horizontal transfer is indeed now dawning through technology, genes may become free to compete with other genes more widely yet again.

As I said, there are fascinating ideas in Freeman Dyson's piece. But it is a huge pity it is marred by such an elementary mistake at the heart of it.

Richard


FREEMAN DYSON[8.30.07]Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe 

Dear Richard Dawkins,

Thank you for the E-mail that you sent to John Brockman, saying that I had made a "school-boy howler" when I said that Darwinian evolution was a competition between species rather than between individuals. You also said I obviously had not read The Selfish Gene. In fact I did read your book and disagreed with it for the following reasons.

Here are two replies to your E-mail. The first was a verbal response made immediately when Brockman read your E-mail aloud at a meeting of biologists at his farm. The second was written the following day after thinking more carefully about the question.

First response. What I wrote is not a howler and Dawkins is wrong. Species once established evolve very little, and the big steps in evolution mostly occur at speciation events when new species appear with new adaptations. The reason for this is that the rate of evolution of a population is roughly proportional to the inverse square root of the population size. So big steps are most likely when populations are small, giving rise to the ``punctuated equilibrium'' that is seen in the fossil record. The competition is between the new species with a small population adapting fast to new conditions and the old species with a big population adapting slowly.

Second response. It is absurd to think that group selection is less important than individual selection. Consider for example Dodo A and Dodo B, competing for mates and progeny in the dodo population on Mauritius. Dodo A competes much better and?has greater fitness, as measured by individual selection. Dodo A mates more often and has many more grandchildren than Dodo B. A hundred years later, the species is extinct and the fitness of A and B are both reduced to zero. Selection operating at the species level trumps selection at the individual level. Selection at the species level wiped out both A and B because the species neglected to maintain the ability to fly, which was essential to survival when human predators appeared on the island. This situation is not peculiar to dodos. It arises throughout the course of evolution, whenever environmental changes cause species to become extinct.

In my opinion, both these responses are valid, but the second one goes more directly to the issue that divides us. Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.


Dimitar Sasselov, George Church, Robert Shapiro, John Brockman,

J. Craig Venter,Seth Lloyd, Freeman Dyson


Pages

Subscribe to