E.O. Wilson: Synthetic Biology Will Radically Change the World

I like to think that ultimate biology, ultimate
biology is going to emerge within the next several decades and it’s going to be in three
domains. One has already begun. And that is the creation of artificial life. And scientists
have just very recently put together from chemicals off the shelf a genome that is of
the entire DNA of a bacterium, inserted it into a bacterial shell and created a functioning
reproducing bacterium that way; chemicals off the shelf; a very simple organism. Now
this is momentous because it means that as we develop this technology we’re going to
eventually be able to produce multicellular organisms and new kinds of species. We’ll
have that capacity and it’s going to raise all kinds of questions, certainly opportunities.
And among the opportunities that it will present, if we don’t let the excesses and the deviations
and auxiliary consequences unforeseen overwhelm us, is that we’re going to be able to produce
improvements in the productivity of our food plants and organisms that are vital for the
maintenance of human dominated environments. I say that in that way because I also believe
it’s going to be absolutely necessary for the welfare of planet earth that we leave
a large part of the planet to the eight million other species that occupy earth with us because
that’s the shield that already is in place to which we are exquisitely well adapted.
But that’s called, that creation of life is called synthetic biology and mark it well.
Synthetic biology is just taking off and it means it’s going to have an impact in a lot
of ways. And it will segue in its consequences and what it reveals about the nature of life
and humanity itself as it comes into the era of artificial intelligence and robotics in
a big way. There is ongoing at the present time, I know
I just met with a number of them, a something of a controversy between the artificial intelligence
and humanoid robotic creators, a controversy over whether we’re going to duplicate the
brain digitally. Most think that that can be done. That’s not exactly how neurons really
work, they work en masse in creating waves of activities that then trigger other waves,
hormonal release and so on. But against that viewpoint also exists the analog robotic thinkers
who believe the human brain is just so thoroughly analog and that it doesn’t really work digitally
but it works on activation of masses of neurons, layers, loci and web work that passes varying
degrees subjectively felt through other pathways and centers until finally they reach decision
points, mostly in the subconscious brain. So we have coming ahead in the development
of these various fields the capacity, one, to immensely alter, once we know the full
genomes and artificial intelligence, when synthetic biology is advanced, profoundly
alter food plants and almost create new ones that can substantially increase the per capita
food supply of the world with enormous consequences. And then on the other hand we have the capacity
in time of producing robots that can think like humans and on much lower wattage than
our present robots. The human body and the human brain works incidentally at something
like 1000th the energy input of an advanced robot. So that’s another direction that’s
going to be taken. And what’s running through your mind, if you’re listening to me or seeing
me now is uh-oh, if we keep on going can the robots with their artificial organisms around
them and their intelligence and ability to make decisions then replace us? No way. That’s
great for Hollywood but since we’re going to be approaching robot capacity and genome
modification of other organisms, and then even ourselves, we can change our own genomes
in some respects, we’re going to see the risk of giving control to any other intelligent
agent and make sure that it’s just not going to happen.