June 15, 2016

Advice from a Novelist: How to Prepare for the Biodigital Era

Biodigital era
Image source: Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews John Sundman, http://www.writerscast.com

When John Sundman isn’t absorbed by a freelance technical writing assignment, laboring at a construction site, or combating flames as a volunteer firefighter, you’re likely to find him at his MacBook computer in his Martha’s Vineyard home, pondering the implications of what he calls the “biodigital era” and weaving a new technoparanoid or metageek novel for his legion of fans.

Many of those fans are in the synbio community, including George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and author of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.”

Sundman, Church writes, “is a master of machines —computing, biological and political —and his books include details that will convince an expert, and yet enchant a distant outsider with a compelling page-turner plot. Not just plot and mechanisms, but also unforgettable personalities that haunt us long after the pages stop.” Sundman’s 25 years’ experience in the computer industry, including more than a dozen in Silicon Valley, provide the foundation for his work.

With a lab that specializes in the “subset of topics pejoratively classified as sci-fi/impossible,” Church says, “we need a constant stream of challenges and inspirations.” Writers like Sundman nourish that stream, he says. Sundman’s career as a novelist started in 1999, when he published Acts of the Apostles, a thriller about a Silicon Valley genius and would-be messiah who develops a gene-editing methodology remarkably like those of today’s headlines. Since long before CRISPR, his books have probed the implications of radical new technologies.

Figuring that many synbio researchers might benefit from being similarly challenged and inspired, SynBioBeta Founder, John Cumbers has invited Sundman to give a ten-minute “short talk” at SynBioBeta Activate! Edinburgh 2016, a one-day conference taking place July 7 at the University at Edinburgh.

Sundman will discuss what he sees as the main responsibilities of writers, artists and scientists at the dawn of the “biodigital era.” He’ll quickly then preview his new short novel, Meekman Rising, a prequel to his first novel, Acts of the Apostles and several other works. Set in the mid-1970s, it tells the story of Monty Meekman, a charismatic young professor at Stanford who sets out to recruit his “apostles” from among the brightest young minds in the country. While fictional, the novel is inspired by real people, real science, and real events of that period, including the 1975 Asilomar DNA conference.

This will be the first time Sundman has presented at SynBioBeta. We talked with him about his work. (To learn more about him, we suggest you explore his website at JohnSundman.com, connect with him via Twitter @jsundmanus, and check out the works available to you on Amazon.  You can also pre-order his new novel, Meekman Rising.

How do you define the Biodigital Era?

In simplest terms, the emerging biodigital era is characterized by the convergence of biological and digital technologies. I sometimes use the image of a tunnel being dug from two directions. From the biological side, we see DNA (and other biological molecules) being used to do things that until recently were typically done by (silicon based) digital computers — things like performing computations, implementing logic circuits, storing data.

From the digital side, we see DNA sequences being designed on computer screens and manufactured to order (rather than the old-fashioned biological methods of manipulating DNA and other molecules in wet labs). This means that many of the techniques of computer programming and logic design can now be applied to life forms. It also implies that digitally simulated life will take on more and more of the attributes of “real” carbon-based life. So when the two ends of the tunnel meet, you have unfettered commerce between these two domains.

But that just describes the technology. The more important and profound questions have to do with figuring out where these new capabilities will take us as societies, as a species, as a planetary ecosystem. Those questions are many, important, and deep.

The subtitle of George Church’s book “Regenesis” is “How Synthetic Biology will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.” I think that’s pretty heavy-duty stuff.

Should we fear the Biodigital Age or embrace it?

We should start with the observation that unlike, say, nuclear technology, biodigital technology is inherently democratic and accessible to everybody. There can’t be any such thing as a “biotechnology non-proliferation treaty”. We live in a maker/biohacking world and we’re not going back.

Certainly we can anticipate many wondrous and good things to come. Treatments and cures for debilitating diseases. Abundant food for everyone on Earth. Ways to clear our oceans, lands and skies of pollution, etc. So the biodigital era is not to be universally feared in the way, for example, global warming should be feared.

But neither should we be naive about the dangers. There will be malevolent biohackers just as there are malevolent computer hackers. Why wouldn’t there be? And the potential force-amplification is great. An individual or small group can create a very great effect. So we need to go into this with our eyes open.

Standing at the dawn of this era, what are the main responsibilities of writers, artists and scientists?

What are our responsibilities? By “us,” I mean people who attend SynBioBeta and people like us, including biohackers.

Responsibilities of scientists and biohackers:

  •    To anticipate dangers & do no harm
  •    To think actively about risk mitigation
  •    To create understanding in the general public

Responsibilities of artists, writers, intellectuals:

  •    To understand the science and technology
  •    To communicate science and technology to general public
  •    To figure out what the hardest and most important questions are in this new biodigital era
  •    To ask these questions of the people who need to hear them, in ways that will make those people willing and able to respond.

In what ways to do you strive in your work to live up to these responsibilities?

As a novelist, my first responsibility is to master my craft and write good novels. I believe in the power of literature to help people become aware of and escape intellectual ruts they may have fallen into. Good fiction enhances capacity for empathy, for seeing things from other people’s points of view. I think empathy and perspective are vitally important.

Good fiction is not didactic or polemical; it doesn’t make an argument or tell people what to think. It just raises awareness about some aspects of our human condition and the challenges we face. To the extent that new technologies present new challenges, I try to describe them honestly. To the extent that I raise questions, I try to make them legitimate and important ones. I try to avoid cheap shots and spelling out answers. As a matter of fact, I don’t have many answers.

In March 2015, not long after CRISPR had burst upon the scene, Sundman and Church sat down for a long and wide-ranging conversation in Church’s Boston laboratory. You can find it here: http://johnsundman.com/2015/11/synthetic-biology-legend-george-church-i-talk-about-science-and-civilization/conveniently edited into four videos of about 18 minutes each.