The scary future of synthetic biology

I’ve lived through a millennium of Technology, but this is the first time I feel genuinely fearful of it. This fear comes at a point when the prospect of an Artificial Being is bigger than any small matter I’ve known in my life, and even bigger than almost any larger matter.

This does not come from being uncomfortable with the philosophical appeal to consciousness being launched in AI, or being worried about distributed robots taking over the world. On the contrary: this happens because we feel afraid and anxious over a system that changes our relationships. Our dependence and allegiance on it. The work of our words, our sensory receptors and our emotional bonds. The appearance of a new reality that appears so different to how we’ve known it.

Synthetic biology is not about the ability to create endless levels of value. To listen to some of the many conversations on social media, it seems to be about the ability to produce materials with many, many qualities, that are seemingly more desirable than we can name. It’s claimed that synthetic biology has the power to build the perfect fine thread, is possible to build the perfect footstick and article of clothing, to repair the genetic tracks of human disease and produce a digital imprint of genomes for gene therapy.

This is nonsense. The idea of an artificial being that you know for a fact, and that you can see is still a possibility. It’s the possibilities, and the possibilities only, that frighten me. We have the ability to turn our cells into a resource that can make everything around it more valuable. It is this ability that makes us special.

Imagine if what we do to our cells became the foundation for the industries and professions that we didn’t have. Imagine if we realised that our cells were better than our skin, muscles, bones and nails, but when we go back in time we find they are all broken down into smaller and smaller units, and we use similar parts to make stuff that we can make. What’s to stop us making the special thing that we do differently from everyone else. As the entrepreneur Ash Wainwright argued: “When can we stop learning?”

Now imagine if our cells are our base currency and the foundation of the future of the economy. That is a future that seems even more imminent than when consciousness had been linked to artificial intelligence. If it seemed less likely just a few months ago, it feels even more urgent now.

Synthetic biology is a system for us to pull the old together again. We have the technology to re-create everything we ever loved, something we couldn’t have done without our ancestors’ experimentation in fermentation and fermentation as a profession. We have also retained the potential to make things, using just one cell. But our instincts in the face of this nature and nurture are already tied to seeing the universe as a constant flux, equal parts beauty and struggle, waste and beauty.

We make the “perfect thread”, or we make a product that doesn’t require as much work to make. The next times I feel fear and anxiety, my old memories of the woodcutter, the sailor, the inventor and the chemist are more likely to be a source of humour than anxiety. I hope the transition between the two is speeded up so that I don’t lose what we have and fear the loss of something that we did a long time ago.

• Stuart Ramsey is the executive director of the Human, Biological and Environmental Sciences Research Council. He is a former OBE and a former BE

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