Designing new life forms

October 19, 2015

Image via Flickr courtesy of Basheer Tome at

“Designing new life forms is fun and scary”
Joichi Ito, The New Yorker Festival

Whether we like it or not, very soon we’re all going to have to face the moral and philosophical dilemma of the next technological wave: where digital meets biology.

In the first week of October, I attended The New Yorker Festival in New York City, spending three days feasting on a smorgasbord of arts and ideas from The New Yorker. Notable speakers included music producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson, author of The Virgin Suicides, Jeff Eugenides, writer-activist Andrew Solomon, and co-founder of the Bitcoin Foundation, Patrick Murck, amongst many others. But one of the most intriguing sessions came from Joichi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab.

Joi diving in the Bahamas… Not your typical academic!

Image via Flickr courtesy of Joi Ito at

Ito is a refreshing break from the stereotypical academic: he has never completed a degree but has received two honorary degrees.  He’s bursting with energy and ideas, joking and laughing and taking off on tangents when he finds something exciting.  Ito’s talk packed so many topics into 90 minutes that it’s taken a few weeks to digest them all: the birth of the Internet, the paradox of online privacy, the future of Bitcoin, the micro biomes behind fecal transplants, the current state of gene editing, the difficulties of artificial intelligence, and new structures of learning.  Amidst this, one of the things I found most interesting was the future of tech in its relationship with our human biology.

“Biology is the new digital”
Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the MIT Media Lab

Skeletons at RISD Nature Lab

Image via Flickr courtesy of Joi Ito at

We all know about tracking devices and the quantified self, and have watched their rise into the mainstream over the past few years.  Many of us have also heard about the microbots that can enter one’s bloodstream and potentially find and kill diseased cells.  But behind the scenes, our understanding of genes and the foundations of biology have been shifting drastically; biology is starting to touch the whole world.  “There are game-changing breakthroughs every year,” Ito says.

This ever-increasing level of knowledge is allowing us to edit genes, and even design life forms from a single cell. Moreover, the technology to do this, CRISPR, costs as little as $30; “It’s a high school project,” Ito says, and it’s this technology that scientists used in April 2015 to successfully engineer human embryos.

Plant samples in the gene bank at CIAT's Genetic Resources Unit

Image via Flickr courtesy of CIAT at

But CRISPR doesn’t stop at humans. Gene editing is giving us the ability to edit whole biospheres – human and animal life, plant life and food sources (“Let’s plant a seed and grow a house”)– essentially hacking into the genetic code of the Earth. The ramifications of this are, of course, incredibly varied and speculative. For instance, if you were scrolling through a catalogue of eggs and sperm, what would you pick? What kind of child would you want to build?

“Most parents would go, ‘I want the kid that’s the most normal’,” Ito says. Not only could this could rapidly change the construct of child-parent relationships, but also according to Ito, “the diversity of our population is at risk.”

“Throughout all of history,” he says, referring to Seth Goden’s We Are All Weird, “the most obvious thing is that the strongest biospheres are complex, vibrant, diverse and constantly changing. The weakest biospheres have no diversity.”

Image via Flickr courtesy of Kenneth Lu at

There is cause for calm, though, as Ito admits, “It’s way deeper than we thought… it’s not like there’s one gene for one thing. We’re learning that we know less and less but we’re moving at such a pace.”

Looking at this culturally, it may actually be the breakneck speed of innovation that holds the bigger threat. We’re going to have to face some big challenges morally and philosophically as biology intersects with the digital.  And as innovation continues to move faster than ever before, it’s our moral and philosophical process of evaluation that may be left in the lurch.