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

Legendary biologist Edward O. Wilson explores three realms of ultimate biology from which we should expect major breakthroughs over the next several decades. Each is rooted in synthetic biology, which makes the creation of artificial life possible. Wilson's latest book is titled "The Meaning of Human Existence."
  • Transcript


E.O. Wilson:  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 8 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, 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.


Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton