If, individually, technologies did not develop as quickly as desired, we now find ourselves at a crossroads, when we have to explore the points of contact between technologies. How does what happens in robotics is determined by what is happening in the field of 3D printing? What can be achieved by applying the latest achievements in the field of quantum computing to nanotechnology? Among all these lines, there is one particularly curious intersection: artificial intelligence and genomics. Constant progress is observed in each of these areas, but Jamie Metzel believes that it is their convergence that will bring us closer to the unexplored territories we dreamed of reading science fiction. “The dragging of the rope will begin, and it will be a contest between the realities of our biology with its built-in constraints and the scale of our aspirations,” he says.
Metzel is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Last week, he talked about his thoughts on genomics and AI, as well as where their convergence would lead us.
The life we are used to
Metzel explains that genomics as a region developed slowly, but quickly gained momentum. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the structure of the DNA double helix and realized that the base-pair order contains a treasury of genetic information. It was a book of life, we found it.
In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (13 years later and $ 2.7 billion spent), we learned that the genome consists of 3 billion base pairs and the location of specific genes in our chromosomes. The book of life not only existed – it could be read.
Fifteen years later – in 2018 – we already mastered the skills of precise editing of the genes of plants, animals and people. Everything is changing rapidly and pushing us towards new frontiers. Forget about reading the book of life – we learn to write it.
“Reading, writing and hacking – it becomes obvious that human beings are another form of information technology, and how our information technology entered the exponential curve of discovery, just the same way we enter ourselves,” said Metzel. “And this overlaps with the revolution in the field of AI.”
In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo beat the best go player in the world. In 2017, AlphaGo Zero appeared: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero did not learn from the previous go games, but simply studied the rules of the go game – and in four days beat the AlphaGo program.
Our own biology is, of course, much more difficult than the game of go, and it is worth starting with. “The system of our own biology, which we are trying to understand, is massive, but more importantly, comprehensible.”
Take the standard set of rules of our biology, the data of the genome – and, in the end, maybe even surpass the very nature.
Many countries are already starting to produce such data. The British National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US, the All of Us research program sequences a million Americans. China is even more aggressive in sequencing its population and has the goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.
“We will get massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” says Metzel. “The real discovery will be born in comparison of the sequenced genomes of people with their electronic medical records, and ultimately with their records of life.”
Making people voluntarily open access to their data is another matter. But it is precisely here that the lack of strict privacy protection in China can be a significant advantage.
To compare genotypes and phenotypes on a scale — first millions, then hundreds of millions, then billions — according to Metzel, we will need artificial intelligence and big data analytic tools, as well as algorithms that are far superior to those known to us. These tools will allow us to move from accurate medicine to predictive medicine, so that we will know exactly where and when various diseases are ready to occur, and prevent their occurrence.
But when we unlock our own genetics, the matter will no longer be only and not so much in healthcare. In the end, it’s about who and what we are – people. It’s about identity.
Designer children and their children
According to Metzel, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be the selection of embryos.
Currently, in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures allow for the extraction of about 15 eggs, fertilize them, and then carry out genetic testing before implantation; at the moment you can find out what the diseases associated with a single gene mutation look like, and simple features like hair or eye color. When we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequenced genomes, we will get information on how genetics of the scales work, and we can make a more savvy choice.
Imagine a visit to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a piece of skin or a blood sample, and through the use of in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG), your skin or blood cells become oocytes or sperm, even if you are infertile, which can later be combined into embryos. Tens of hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes donate several cells, after which these cells are sequenced. Sequences of genes will tell you about the likelihood of certain traits and diseases. “When the genetic basis is everywhere, we will be able to understand with an ever higher level of accuracy how healthy a child will grow.”
This, in his opinion, can lead to wild and frightening consequences: if you take 1000 eggs and choose one with optimal genetic sequences, you can then “marry” your embryo with someone else who has done similar things on a different genetic line. “Your five-day embryo and someone else’s five-day embryo will have a baby in the IVG process,” Metzel says. “Then this child will have a child with another five-day embryo from a different genetic line, and this can be continued and continued.”
Sounds crazy, right? But hey, that’s not all. As Jason Pontin told this year in Wired magazine, “gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 will make it relatively easy to repair, add or remove genes in the IVG process, eliminating diseases or making improvements that ripple through the child’s entire genome. All this may sound like science fiction, but for those who follow the research, the combination of gene editing and IVG does not just seem likely – an inevitable development. ”
All crazy just
Stepping on the slippery track of gene editing and mating of embryos, we will go to the anti-utopian race to create the perfect person. If someone invests so much time and effort in selecting their embryos, Metzel is asked, how will he choose a marriage partner for his children? IVG will allow it to accelerate evolution.
“We all need to be part of a comprehensive, integrated, global dialogue about the future of our species,” says Metzel. “Health professionals will become important nodes in this.” Last but not least in this dialogue may be the issue of access to technologies such as IVG; Should we take some steps so that IVG from the tool for a rich minority does not become a tool for an even richer and even more minority, thereby rocking inequality and further polarization of society?
As Pontin notes, 40 years ago, IVG also caused fear, confusion and resistance – and today in vitro fertilization is as normal and common as the millions of healthy babies created using this technology.