2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Professor of Physics, Institute for Advanced Study; Author, Many Colored Glass; The Scientist as Rebel
Biotechnology will be thoroughly domesticated in the next fifty years

Biotechnology will be domesticated in the next fifty years as thoroughly as computer technology was in the last fifty years.

This means cheap and user-friendly tools and do-it-yourself kits, for gardeners to design their own roses and orchids, and for animal-breeders to design their own lizards and snakes. A new art-form as creative as painting or cinema. It means biotech games for children down to kindergarten age, like computer-games but played with real eggs and seeds instead of with images on a screen. Kids will grow up with an intimate feeling for the organisms that they create. It means an explosion of biodiversity as new ecologies are designed to fit into millions of local niches all over the world. Urban and rural landscapes will become more varied and more fertile.

There are two severe and obvious dangers. First, smart kids and malicious grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture of lethal microbes. Second, ambitious parents will find ways to apply biotech tools to the genetic modification of their own babies. The great unanswered question is, whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied freely to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans.