I’m sure that every generation has a point where its members believe they are at a pivotal point in human history. Sadly, generational exceptionalism rarely stands the test of time. Yet despite this, I believe that we truly are approaching a pivot point–not because of global warming, over-population, rampant resource abuse, or a myriad other critically important issues that we’re currently grappling with, but because of what I refer to in my 2018 book Films from the Future as our increasing mastery of “base code.”
To use an analogy from digital technologies, our phones, our computers and tablets, our smart devices, the internet, banking, healthcare, education, supply chains, and pretty much everything else that we rely on, all depend on complex strings of ones and zeroes embedded in code, and massive arrays of microscopically small switches that are part of the compute substrates that this code runs on. Master this “base code” of ones and zeroes and you can, in principle, control the world.
What if we could go beyond digital technologies though, and do the same with the tangible world we inhabit? What if we could manipulate the “base code” of the physical and biological systems around just us as easily as we can upgrade our phone, or write a new app?
If this was possible, it would be a game-changer. If we could intentionally recode the reality that we experience–the tactile materials and products around us, and the biological systems we are a part of–it would mark a distinct break from our evolutionary heritage. Rather than being limited to using the resources that we’re surrounded by, we would have the capacity to invent–from scratch–new materials, new biologies, new systems even.
It would also raise the very real and extremely scary possibility that we end up “bricking” the world we live in.
Imagine an enthusiastic twelve year tinkering with the operating system of your laptop and crashing it, leading to a whole system re-install, and you begin to get the idea of the vulnerabilities here–except that when it comes to tinkering with the “operating system” of reality, there’s not likely to be a re-install option if we get things wrong!
Of course, this all sounds rather fantastical. And to be sure, we’re not yet at the point where we can rewrite the base code of everything around us. But we’re getting remarkably close to being able to do this–or at least something close to it–and this is why I believe we’re approaching a pivot point in human history that will have a profound impact on our future. And it’s one that we need to take seriously if we’re committed to building a better future.
But what exactly does it mean to have mastery over the “base code” of the world we inhabit? To get a handle on this, this is what I wrote back in 2018 in chapter nine of Films from the Future (edited lightly for context):
The Transformative Nature of Technological Convergence
According to World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, we are well into a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” The first Industrial Revolution, according to Schwab, was spurred by the use of water power and steam to mechanize production. The second took off with the widespread use of electricity. And the third was ushered in with the digital revolution of the mid- to late twentieth century. Now, argues Schwab, digital, biological, and physical technologies are beginning to fuse together, to transform how and what we manufacture and how we live our lives. And while this may sound a little Hollywood-esque, it’s worth remembering that the World Economic Forum is a highly respected global organization that works closely with many of the world’s top movers and shakers.
At the heart of this new Industrial Revolution is an increasing convergence between technological capabilities that is blurring
the lines between biology, digital systems, and the physical and mechanical world. Of course, technological convergence is nothing new. Most of the technologies we rely on every day depend to some degree on a fusion between different capabilities. Yet, over the past two decades, there’s been a rapid acceleration in what is possible that’s been driven by a powerful new wave of convergence.
Early indications of this new wave emerged in the 1970s as the fields of computing and robotics began to intertwine. This was a no-brainer of a convergence, as it became increasingly easy to control mechanical systems using computer “brains.” But it was a growing trend in convergence between material science, genetics, and neuroscience, and their confluence with cyber-systems and robotics, that really began to accelerate the pace of change.
Some of this was captured in a 2003 book on converging technologies co-edited by Mike Roco and Bill Bainbridge at the
US National Science Foundation. Working with leading scientists and engineers, they explored how a number of trends were leading to a “confluence of technologies that now offers the promise of improving human lives in many ways, and the realignment of traditional disciplinary boundaries that will be needed to realize this potential.” And at this confluence they saw four trends as dominating the field: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive technology.
Roco, Bainbridge, and others argued that it’s at the intersections between technologies that novel and disruptive things begin to happen, especially when it occurs between technologies that allow us to control the physical world (nanotechnology), biological systems (biotechnology), the mind (cognitive technologies), and cyberspace (specifically, information technologies). And they had a point. Where these four technological domains come together, really interesting things start to happen. For instance, scientists and technologists can begin to use nanotechnology to build more powerful computers, or to read DNA sequences faster, or build better machine-brain interfaces. Information technology can be used to design new materials, or to engineer novel genetic sequences and interpret brain signals. Biotechnology can be, and is being, used to make new materials, to translate digital code into genetic code, and to precisely control neurons. And neurotechnology is inspiring a whole new generation of computer processors.
These confluences just begin to hint at the potential embedded within the current wave of technological convergence. What Roco and Bainbridge revealed is that we’re facing a step-change in how we use science and technology to alter the world around us. But their focus on nano, bio, info, and cognitive technologies only scratched the surface of the transformative changes that are now beginning to emerge.
Base Coding: Biology; Materials; Cyber
To understand why we’re at such a transformative point in our technological history, it’s worth pausing to look at how our technological skills are growing in how we work with the most fundamental and basic building blocks of the things we make and use; starting with digital systems, and extending out to the materials and products we use and the biological systems we work with.
The advent of digital technologies and modern computers brought about a major change in what we can achieve, and it’s one that we’re only just beginning to fully appreciate the significance of. Of course, it’s easy to chart the more obvious impacts of the digital revolution on our lives, including the widespread use of smart phones and social media. But there’s an underlying trend that far exceeds many of the more obvious benefits of digital devices and systems, and this is the creation of a completely new dimension that we are now operating in: cyberspace.
Cyberspace is a domain where, through the code we write, we have control over the most fundamental rules and instructions that govern it. We may not always be able to determine or understand the full implications of what we do, but we have the power to write and edit the code that ultimately defines everything that happens here.
The code that most cyber-systems currently rely on is made up of basic building blocks of digital computing, the ones and zeroes of binary, and the bits and bytes that they’re a part of. Working with these provides startling insight into what we might achieve if we could, in a similar way, write and edit the code that underlies the physical world we inhabit. And this is precisely what we
are beginning to do with biological systems, although, as we’re discovering, coding biology using DNA is fiendishly complicated. Unlike the world of cyber, we had no say in designing the underlying code of biology, and as a result we’re having to work hard to understand it. Here, rather than ones and zeroes of digital code, the fundamental building blocks are the four bases that make up DNA: adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. This language of DNA is deeply complex, and we’re still a long way from being close to mastering it. But the more we learn, the closer we’re getting to being able to design and engineer biological systems with the same degree of finesse we can achieve in cyberspace.
Thinking about coding biology in the same way we code apps and other cyber-systems is somewhat intuitive. There is, however, a third domain where we are effectively learning to rewrite the “base code,” and this is the physical world of materials and machines. Here, the equivalent fundamental building blocks—the base code—are the atoms and molecules that everything is made of. Just as we’ve experienced a revolution in our understanding of biology over the past century, we’ve also seen a parallel revolution in understanding how the arrangement and types of atoms and molecules in materials determines their behavior. These are the physical world’s equivalent of the “bits” of cyber code, and the “bases” of biological code, and, with our emerging mastery of this base code of atoms and molecules, we’re transforming how we can design and engineer the material world around us. Naturally, as with DNA, we’re still constrained by the laws of physics as we work with atoms and molecules. We cannot create materials that defy the laws of the nature, for instance, or that take on magical properties. But we can start to design and create materials, and even machines, that go far beyond what has previously occurred through natural processes alone.
Here, our growing mastery of the base code in each of these three domains is transforming how we design and mold the world around us. And it’s this that is making the current technological revolution look and feel very different from anything that’s come before it. But we’re also learning how to cross-code between these base codes, to mix and match what we do with bits, bases, and atoms to generate new technological capabilities. And it’s this convergence that is radically transforming our emerging technological capabilities.
To get a sense of just how powerful this idea of “cross-coding” is, it’s worth taking a look at what is often referred to as “synthetic biology.” In 2005, the scientist and engineer Drew Endy posed a seemingly simple question: Why can’t we design and engineer biological systems using DNA coding in the same way we design and engineer electronic devices? His thinking was
that, complex as biology is, if we could break it down into more manageable components and modules, like electrical, computer, and mechanical engineers do with their systems, we could transform how “biological” products are designed and engineered.
Endy wasn’t the first to coin the term synthetic biology. But he was one of the first to introduce ideas to biological design like standardized parts, modularization, and “black-boxing” (essentially designing biological modules where a designer doesn’t need to know how a module works, just what it does). And in doing so, he helped establish an ongoing trend in applying non-biological thinking to biology.
This convergence between biology and engineering is already leading to a growing library of “bio bricks,” or standardized biological components that, just like Lego bricks or electronic components, can be used to build increasingly complex biological “circuits” and devices. The power of bio bricks is that engineers can systematically build biological systems that are designed to carry out specific functions without necessarily understanding the intricacies of the underlying biology. It’s a bit like being able to create the Millennium Falcon out of Legos without needing to understand the chemistry behind the individual bricks, or successfully constructing your own computer with no knowledge of the underlying solid-state physics. In the same way, scientists and engineers are using bio bricks to build organisms that are capable of producing powerful medicines, or signaling the presence of toxins, or even transforming pollutants into useful substances.
Perhaps not surprisingly given its audacity, Endy’s vision of synthetic biology isn’t universally accepted, and there are many scientists who still feel that biology is simply too complex to be treated like Legos or electronic components. Despite this, the ideas of Drew Endy and others are already transforming how biological systems and organisms are being designed. To get a flavor of this, you need look no further than the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, or iGEM for short.
Every year, teams from around the world compete in iGEM, many of them made up of undergraduates and high school students
with very diverse backgrounds and interests. Many of these teams produce genetically modified organisms that are designed to behave in specific ways, all using biological circuits built with bio-bricks. In 2016, for instance, winning teams modified E. coli bacteria to detect toxins in Chinese medicine, engineered a bacterium to selectively kill a parasitic mite that kills bees, and altered a bacterium to indicate the freshness of fruit by changing color. These, and many of the other competition entries, provide sometimes-startling insights into what can be achieved when innovative teams of people start treating biology as just another branch of engineering. But they also reflect how cross-coding between biology and cyberspace is changing our very expectations of what’s possible when working with biology.
To better understand this, it’s necessary to go back to the idea of DNA being part of the base code of all living things. As a species, we’ve been coding in this base code for thousands of years, albeit crudely, through selective breeding. More recently, we’ve learned how to alter this code through brute force, by physically bombarding cells with edited strands of DNA, or designing viruses that can deliver a payload of modified genetic material. But, until just a few years ago, this biological coding was largely limited to working directly with physical materials. Yet, as the cost and ease of DNA sequencing has plummeted, all of this has changed. Scientists can now quickly and (relatively) cheaply read the DNA base code of complete organisms and upload them to cyberspace. Once there, they can start to redesign and experiment with this code, manipulating it in much in the same way as we’ve learned how to work with digitized photos and video.
This is a big deal, as it allows scientists and engineers to experiment with and redesign DNA-based code in ways that were impossible until quite recently. As well as tweaking or redesigning existing organisms, this is allowing them to discover how to make DNA behave in ways that have never previously occurred in nature. It’s even opening the door to training AI-based systems how to code using DNA. But this is only half of the story. The other half comes with the increasing ability of scientists to not only read DNA sequences into cyberspace, but to write modified genetic code back into the real world.
In the past few years, it’s become increasingly easy to synthesize sequences of DNA from computer-based code. You can even mail-order vials of DNA that have been constructed to your precise specifications, and have them delivered to your home or lab in a matter of days. In other words, scientists, engineers, and, in fact, pretty much anyone who puts their mind to it can upload genetic code into cyberspace, digitally alter it, then download it into back into the physical world, and into real, living organisms. This is all possible because of our growing ability to cross-code between biology and cyberspace.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see what a step-change in our technological capabilities cross-coding like this may bring about. And it’s not confined to biology and computers; cross-coding is also happening between biology and materials, between materials and cyberspace, and at the nexus of all three domains. This is powerful and transformative science and technology. Yet with this emerging mastery of the world we live in, there’s perhaps a greater likelihood than ever of us making serious and irreversible mistakes. And this is where technological convergence comes hand in hand with an urgent need to understand and navigate the potential impacts of our newfound capabilities, before it’s too late.
A Base Code Coda
I started off this post by hinting that I don’t think that global warming, over-population, rampant resource abuse, or a number of other headline-making crises, are at the core of why I believe we’re at a pivot point in human history. This, of course, is an oversimplification.
How we address emerging global challenges like these is absolutely critical to how we go about building a future that isn’t ravaged by failure. Yet to focus solely on them places us at risks of missing emerging trends that have the potential to fundamentally transform how our actions are connected to future consequences.
To place this in context, global warming, pollution, and other areas where we’re reaching or are straddling planetary boundaries, are a result of our use and misuse of relatively crude technologies. Now imagine how much more challenging things will become as those technologies extend to rewriting the base code of the planet we inhabit.
This is where our mastery of base code across and between physical, biological and cyber domains is a game-changer, and to overlook or minimize this could be one of the most fundamental mistakes we make in preparing for the future ahead of us.
Of course, I’m being a little hubristic here, and the complexity of the world we live in remains immeasurably beyond our comprehension. For instance, DNA is a deeply non-linear code that bears little resemblance to cyber code, and one where many widely separated sequences and sub-sequences work together in complex ways to determine how genes are expressed. And beyond the base code of DNA, there are layers of epigenetic code–overlay code that modulates how DNA sequences behave–that further add to this complexity. But this is precisely where the ability to tinker without understanding becomes an increasingly serious liability.
And the thing with convergent technologies is that they have a habit of transcending our assumptions and expectations–especially as we get better at “trans coding” between base codes, and bring increasingly sophisticated technologies like artificial intelligence into the mix.
There is also another set of layers here that fall within a broader understanding of base code, and these encompass the many roles of individuals, groups, organizations, and social norms and behaviors, in influencing the course of the future. After all, its people–us–and all our communities, norms, desires, aspirations, biases and limitations, who are both developing the base code “code book” here, and are using and abusing the growing abilities this opens up. And just as we can think of the domains of materials, biology and cyber having a base code, maybe we need to extend the concept to social norms and trends, behaviors, and even ideas.
Of course, things get messily complex here–and maybe irreducibly so. But if we’re to think critically and strategically about our growing abilities to transform the future, we need to come to grips with our capacity to rewrite the underlying code that profoundly impacts all aspects of that future, and how we can do this responsibly and ethically.
If we don’t, it’s going to become increasingly hard to avoid the planetary version of the Blue Screen of Death somewhere down the line — and that would not be good for our global futures!