October 10, 2018

A clash of titans: DIY Bio met the homebrew computer club at SynBioBeta 2018

A clash of titans SynBioBeta 2018
Steve Wozniak and George Church in conversation with Eri Gentry at SynBioBeta 2018.

Steve Wozniak: the man who co-founded Apple, a household name.

George Church: the synthetic biologist and professor, a mammoth contributor to science, both figuratively and literally.

The opening night of SynBioBeta 2018 was the embodiment of technology meeting biology, with these two minds coming together to discuss the science of today’s world and tomorrow’s — both technically and philosophically — with brilliant insight and constant hilarity.

Moderated by BioCurious founder Eri Gentry, the featured fireside chat fascinated the standing-room-only audience as Church and “Woz” — the manipulator of electrons and the manipulator of carbon — explored a variety of topics.

They described uncannily similar experiences as young students, from their tendency to tinker in high school to pauses in their undergraduate or graduate degrees because of a preference for more mentally stimulating research and innovation. Church repeated both ninth grade and graduate school (flunking out of Duke, eventually making it to Harvard). Woz, asked not to return to the University of Colorado at Boulder, later attended the University of California, Berkeley, only to be interrupted by his entrepreneurial endeavors with Apple (though he returned to complete his EECS degree years later).

This theme of education constantly surfaced throughout the evening, as both Woz and Church emphasized exercising intellectual curiosity, dreaming big “without falling off a cliff,” and finding creativity through some “misbehavior in the background” within the constraints of today’s education system. Both agreed that their self-motivation and deliberation in what they wanted to achieve by constructing a clear vision and following through were instrumental in their development and success over the years.

SynBioBeta 2018

In the early days of Silicon Valley, the hands-on learning of the Homebrew Computing Club was “the most important event of [his] life,” said Steve Wozniak, speaking at SynBioBeta 2018.

Early in the conversation, Woz described his time with the Homebrew Computing Club in the early days of Silicon Valley as one such well-designed educational opportunity and “the most important event of [his] life.” With sharp wit and scintillating clarity, he stressed the importance of not only the hands-on learning he gained from the experience but also the power of collaboration, communication, and conviction that Church agreed needs to be more prevalent in science education. The discussion seamlessly moved into the growing “DIY Bio” movement, including controversial at-home CRISPR kits and not-so-controversial public lab spaces like IndieBio, akin to the hands-on, self-starting nature of the Homebrew Computing Club. Church commented that such organizations are representative of a return to the true origins of biology as a science of “bakers and brewers,” and he looks forward to what comes next in this realm.

The fast-paced conversation quickly progressed to deliberation on the merits and downfalls of open-source science. This emerging trend has been mainly due to the growth of personalized medicine, with companies like 23andMe, Color Genomics, and Ancestry.com making an indelible mark on healthcare; the incorporation of software to analyze large datasets, with entities including 1000Genomes and Google’s DeepVariant becoming more prevalent; and the increase in citizen scientist awareness and engagement due to organizations such as BioCurious and movements like the March for Science. Both men strongly agreed that a certain degree of lay access was imperative simply because biology will always be intrinsic to human existence, so obfuscating innovation in a field that arguably most directly affects society would be impractical — or, to quote Woz, “dumb.”

Woz cited the success of Apple when it opened the App Store to third-party developers and when it released the iPod as two cases-in-point: Both decisions increased public accessibility and corresponded to some of the most significant periods of growth the company has experienced. He went as far as to muse whether “the biological equivalent of the iPhone is the human body,” exploring further intricacies of open-source biology.

Woz advocated for patents to maintain the balance between intellectual property protection and information access, while Church, playing a bit of devil’s advocate, referenced the Personal Genome Project, Nebula Genomics, and the potential for biochemical warfare as real examples of why personal health information must be treated with utmost sensitivity, with more consideration than patent law. The challenges of today’s society, he said, are very much ethically-based: determining the fine balance between accessibility and privacy, and avoiding misuse of biological agents, such as viruses, where “someone having a bad day exercises his or her Second Amendment rights [through biology instead of guns].”

SynBioBeta 2018

Eri Gentry, George Church, and Steve Wozniak contemplate open source as a means for innovation at SynBioBeta 2018.

Continuing to explore the implications of science on society, Woz enthusiastically offered a list of biologically-engineered innovations that he hopes to see soon, including the ability to “hack” the color of animals (specifically mentioned was making some purple) and to treat blindness — both of which Church bemusedly remarked were already possible. Overall, Woz hopes to see the hacking spirit that originated in computer science translate even more to biology in pursuit of “the shortest distance between problem and solution…[and] how to keep optimizing [to find a] new shortcut previously unknown.”

Watching the two men build upon each other’s comments was enlightening and entertaining. A particularly insightful exchange arose from a question about longevity that revealed their differing opinions on the timeline and benefits of brain-computer interfaces, the fight against aging and efforts to extend life, and people living on Mars. Woz does not want to live forever or to take a one-way trip to Mars because he believes the latter would take far too much energy and, more importantly, he does not want to occupy someone else’s spot in the universe and propagate a “lottery system” for a longer life. While Church expressed a contrary and more idealistic view, especially about Mars, Woz just acknowledged his peer’s contrary perspective and explained to the audience that he does not believe in any form of arguing or anger (even if, as he cited, someone crashes into your car or the navigation system doesn’t work). Instead, he says, he has complete faith in positivity, coupled with motivation and deliberation, to always enable progress.

As the session came to a close, the audience was treated to yet another glimpse of the future. Church plans to continue building organisms resistant to all viruses, utilizing machine learning to manipulate humoral immunity, synthesizing new organs, creating brains, and developing gene drives. Despite widespread notoriety for his mammoth project, Church is far more occupied with other endeavors that are equally if not more exciting.

For his part, Wozniak claims “he got distracted by Apple.” He plans to return to hard scientific development, especially with Arduino’s Raspberry Pi and other commercially available tools. Also, in a return to his previous experience as a full-time classroom teacher, he plans to continue educating young people by encouraging them to have the hands-on experiences he did as a teenager.

The once-in-a-lifetime conversation set the tone for the conference and inspired those present to truly embrace SynBioBeta 2018’s theme of “Tech, Meet Bio. Bio, Meet Tech.”

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