The astounding present and dizzying future of synthetic biology

George Church's Harvard lab is one of the most celebrated fonts of innovation in the world of life sciences. George's earliest work on the Human Genome Project arguably pre-dated the actual start of that project. Subsequently, he's been involved in the creation of almost a hundred companies - 22 of which he co-founded.

Much of George's most recent and celebrated work has been with a transformationally powerful gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which he co-invented. George and I discuss CRISPR and its jarring ramifications throughout this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

Our conversation begins with a higher-level survey of the field -- one which cleanly and clearly defines CRISPR by placing it into a broader, and also a quite fascinating framework. We cover four topics, which I'll now define up-front for you, so as to make the interview more accessible.

We begin by discussing genetic sequencing. "Sequencing" is a fancy (and rather cool way) of saying, "reading." Your genome is about three billion characters long. It's written in a limited alphabet, of just four letters: A, G, C, and T. And if someone sequences your genome, it simply means they've read it. They haven't modified it in any way. They haven't have cloned you. They've just gotten a readout (kind of like determining your blood type -- only a few billions times more complicated).

George and I next discuss gene editing. Read the rest

Rodney Brooks on the present and future of robotics & AI

Rodney Brooks is the father of the Roomba, the founder of iRobot, and the creator of both the Baxter and Sawyer product lines from Rethink Robotics. He’s arguably the world’s most accomplished roboticist. And if he’s not – and I personally can’t think of who could challenge him for that crown – he’s definitely the top roboticist to be profiled in an Errol Morris documentary (1997’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).

When Rodney left Australia for the region that would later become known as Silicon Valley, there were quite literally 3 mobile robots of consequence on the entire planet. Years later, he founded a company which has since brought tens of millions of these critters into the world. His products have saved countless lives. They have also liberated thousands of acres of carpeting from dust crumbs, dog hair, and other detritus.

Amazingly, Rodney’s tenure and credentials are every bit as significant in a second high tech field: artificial intelligence. He founded the leading developer of AI coding tools throughout the 80s and early 90s. And somehow he squeezed his robotics and AI entrepreneurship in while building a storied academic career – largely at MIT, where he spent a decade running one of the two largest and most prominent AI centers in the world.

Rodney is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

As you’ll hear, Rodney diverges from fashionable narratives on several tech-related topics. Read the rest

Why neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks we live in the past

When David Eagleman was a kid, he and his friends infiltrated a nearby construction site. Soon enough, he was tumbling three stories to the ground. The fall seemed to take an eternity! But years later, he did the math in a high school physics class, and realized that it lasted a smidgen more than a half second.

Later still, he landed a gig as a neuroscience professor and started investigating this phenomenon. His experiments involved hurling test subjects off a 150-foot tower in Dallas (yes, there was a net), and probing their perception of time during the fall. His conclusion: time doesn't actually slow; it just seems too – because when our lives seem imperiled, an extra track of memory is laid down by the amygdala (the part of the brain whose duties include freaking out). When survivors look back, a higher density of memory is misinterpreted as a longer interval of memory – creating the illusion that time slowed during the frightening incident.

David Eagleman is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast, and you can hear our hour-long conversation by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

David's insights into our experience of time go far beyond the amygdala’s trick of making our worst moments seem to last forever. Among other things, he believes that we quite literally “live in the past” by a few moments, due to the brain’s trick of stitching together a cacophony of asynchronous input into a unified story. Read the rest

On tumors, MRIs and telepathy: Mary Lou Jepsen on the future of devices that could read images from our brains

Mary Lou Jepsen was finishing her PhD work in holography at Brown University when she started getting sick. Really sick. After a year of steady decline, she was living in a wheel chair and covered in sores. When she could no longer do simple subtraction in her head, she called it quits. She basically went home to die.

That was when a generous professor sprung for an MRI. It revealed a brain tumor – one which had probably afflicted her more subtly since childhood. Shortly after a successful operation, she was firing on all cylinders. Within six months, she completed her Ph.D. and cofounded her first startup. She has since started two more companies; worked in the top engineering echelons of Intel, Google, and Facebook; served briefly as a professor at MIT; and cofounded the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Impelled by her searing personal experience, Mary Lou is now honing a technology which, she believes, will revolutionize high-end medical imaging. Accessing this is problematic enough in the US, with its 50 MRI machines per million people. But there are just two machines per million Mexicans, and poorer countries may have just one system in the capital city – if that. And with scans averaging about $2,700, even lavishly-insured Americans might be inadequately monitored. MRIs are more effective than mammograms at detecting certain types of breast cancer, for instance. But expense precludes their use as frontline diagnostics.

Mary Lou believes her technology will be 99.9% cheaper than MRIs (that’s an actual estimate, not a euphemism); radically smaller (the size of a ski cap, not a bedroom); and that its resolution will exceed that of MRIs by a factor of a billion. Read the rest

If Aubrey de Grey is right, you could live forever

I first met Aubrey de Grey over ten years ago, when he presented at a conference I attended. And his core message blew my mind. It was -- and remains -- that it should soon lie within technology’s reach to eliminate the scourge of human aging. Not merely to arrest it -- but even to reverse it. We discuss all of this and more right here:

People have been making these sorts of claims from time immemorial. But they usually have a service, some goop, or a religion to sell, and Aubrey’s peddling none of the above. The charlatans also typically lack Aubrey’s professional validation -- which include a Cambridge Ph.D, any number of academic publications, and dozens of scientists pursuing his agenda with full or partial funding from the organization that he founded and runs.

Aubrey is charmingly indignant about the lack of urgency most of humanity has about ending aging. He attributes this to a mindset he calls the “Pro-aging Trance,” which we discuss in detail at the start of our interview. Its roots include the instinctive conviction most of us have that death and mortality are immutable realities. To which Aubrey would reply that many instinctive convictions -- such as belief in an Earth-centered universe, or the impossibility of human flight -- have gone the way of the dodo bird. And he would of course add that there’s no reason for us to go that way ourselves.

Aubrey maintains that while life itself is -- for now -- unfathomably complex, as are most disease states, virtually everything that causes us to age and die stems from seven discrete categories of damage, which steadily accrue throughout our lives. Read the rest

John Hodgman and others read the After On audiobook

Over the past couple of weeks, I ran two unusual episodes of the After On Podcast, both of them connected to … After On!

The novel, that is. The podcast began as a DVD-extras-like supplement to it -- eight episodes diving deep into science, tech, and sociological issues that I could only explore so much without completely derailing the book’s storyline (I’ll make no claims about partial derailments). I later decided to continue making the podcast because it’s too much fun to give up.

Most of my episodes are based upon in-depth interviews with world-class experts. But these last two are built around excerpts from the audiobook. This may sound like a lazy man’s response to the holidays (because of course it is). Still, I rank them among my finest episodes, as they feature magnificent performances from seven brilliant people -- some of whom will be familiar to a decent chunk of Boing Boing readers.

Both episodes are designed to be spoiler-free, and also perfectly standalone -- in that you don’t have to know anything about the novel to fully parse and enjoy them. You may want to start with the second episode, as it includes the most voices (six of the seven):

Although most of the novel is in a traditional narrative form, about a quarter of it is built from unusual media types. For instance, part of the story unfolds via 20 Amazon reviews. Part is told via excerpts from a mysterious second novel (a truly dreadful one. Read the rest

Cryptocurrency: From Basic Definitions to Expert Issues in One Interview

You’d have to be living in some kind of a news blackout not to have heard chatter about cryptocurrencies recently. The granddaddy of ‘em all – BitCoin – has appreciated roughly 2000% over the past twelve months. This puts the total value of all BitCoin close $300B, making it more valuable than roughly 490 of the companies in the Fortune 500 – and far more valuable than any of the banks that were deemed too big to fail during the financial crisis.

So what in the world is going on here? As with all large markets, nobody fully knows. But my interviewee in today’s podcast, Fred Ehrsam, knows this area better than almost anyone. In 2012, he co-founded Coinbase, which is by far the world’s largest consumer-friendly service for storing and trading cryptocurrencies (though its users include many large nonconsumers as well).

Although our interview is a spontaneous conversation, Fred and I both put methodical thought into sequencing our topics, as well as the level of depth that we treat each with. The result is a robust introduction for who know nothing about cryptocurrencies, which can also truly fire the neurons of experts in this field. Will AI’s start running on the block chain? Could a full-fledged Uber, Lyft, or AirBnB competitor exist as a cloud-based Smart Contract? And how might the emergence of Ethereum stand in certain a line of historic events that stretches back before the Bronze Age?

Those who don’t yet know what a blockchain or a smart contract are should be able to follow the entire conversation, clear through to its complex and rather mindbending conclusions, just by listening carefully (although probably not on 2x speed!). Read the rest

The promise and peril of reading your genome in 2017 (or for that matter, 2018)

Imagine that a folded note before you reveals -- definitively -- whether an excruciating, protracted neurological death lies a decade into your future. Should you look?

Do so, and you could be rid of the grim uncertainty. Or, you could be fated to live and die with an awful truth. One which will haunt you, but also let you shape your remaining years with a foreknowledge most of us lack.

This is a terrible quandary no one should face. But one person in 10,000 carries a genetic vulnerability to a gruesome affliction called Huntington’s Disease. You almost certainly do not. But for those with a family history of Huntington’s, the odds can be as high as 50/50. And in certain genetic configurations, the disease has 100% “penetrance” - meaning that all who carry the mutation are doomed. This makes the results of a Huntington’s test as close to an iron-clad prediction as genetics ever gets.

Before the test was created, a remarkably high percentage of people with family histories said they’d take it if given the chance. But once the test was available, roughly 90% of those people changed their minds. This makes it nigh impossible to know what we ourselves would do if faced with that choice.

But all of us will face a version of that choice very soon - albeit a far less stark, and radically more ambiguous version. And roughly 0.000% of us are in a position to make that choice in an adequately-informed and emotionally-prepared manner. Read the rest

Music Piracy: The Extraterrestrial Threat

I’m taking a week off from producing a full podcast, and am instead presenting what I hope will be a fun Thanksgiving road-trip accompaniment.

It’s an audibobook excerpt. But since it’s the very start of that audiobook – and as it’s read by the flat-out brilliant comedian/actor John Hodgman - there’s no need to hear the rest of the thing to enjoy this standalone hour-plus of playfulness. In other words, this is truly not intended as an advert for a long-ago book! But if you find the nature of the content awkward, by all means skip it. Otherwise, you can hear it by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

The excerpt is from my novel Year Zero. Which was, of course, a literary exercise. But it was also a sort of primal scream therapy – intended to purge the demons still haunting me after years of imploring the music industry to allow me to launch the Rhapsody music service, which was the main product of a company I founded called Listen.com.

For those who don’t go back that far, Rhapsody was the first online music service to get full-catalog licenses from all of the major labels, as well as hundreds of indies (before even Apple). We were also the forerunner to Spotify, in that we were the world’s first unlimited on-demand streaming music service. Eventually, RealNetworks bought us out, then later sold half of the service to MTV. More recently, in a strange, ironic twist, Rhapsody was renamed … Napster. Read the rest

An hour with Ev Williams: founder of Medium, Twitter, and Blogger

As I say at the start of our interview, Ev has founded an almost unreasonably long list of companies - and the three listed above each had huge impacts on the Internet, and on digital culture.

A remarkably coherent theme connects these companies - as well as a fourth one, which didn’t really get off the ground. Each has brought people a global platform for spreading thoughts, opinions and more. Ranging from the succinct and casual chirps of Twitter, to the long-form, Spartan pages of Medium. All are discussed in our conversation, which you can hear by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

One of the Internet’s great early promises was the radical democratization of communication through digital tools. And that’s a promise it has largely delivered on, with significant help from Ev’s products. But Ev didn’t come to his life’s work as an idealist with a cogent vision, but rather as an entrepreneur testing out his umpteenth product idea. The one that finally caught on happened to be in this realm. It was blogger.com, which Ev described to me in a prior conversation as “a hunch, which turned into a side project, which turned into the real thing.” 

That Real Thing was - basically - the very phenomenon of blogging. Which Ev’s side project popularized, helped shape, and arguably even named. A few years later, Ev and a new crew of co-founders kind of half stumbled upon Twitter’s revolutionary model as well.

But there was nothing inadvertent about Medium, which had as coherent a founding vision as any startup I’ve known. Read the rest

TED Chief Chris Anderson on the neuroscience of memes and the future of TED

Before Chris Anderson bought it in 2001, the TED conference was like a hip indie band only the in-crowd knew about. It was cool, small, had incredible buzz, and always sold out its small-ish venue. An unabashedly for-profit jam, TED had never posted a video online (it was too early for that), and happened once a year in Monterrey, California.

What a difference a decade and a half makes. TED videos are now viewed 2.5 billion times per year, and volunteer-organized TEDx events – many of them far larger than the main conference – take place somewhere on our planet ten times a day. And TED no longer funnels earnings to an owner, but pours every dime earned by its cash cow of a main conference into spreading ideas, free of charge, to anyone and everyone on Earth.

Chris has strategized, managed, and overseen TED’s extreme makeover. We discuss it, Chris’s remarkable personal story, how evolution wired humans to transmit ideas via charismatic oratory, and much more in this week’s edition of the After On podcast. You can hear it by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

Links to interviews with other thinkers, founders, and scientists can be found here, with topics including Fermi’s Paradox, quantum computing, drones, the dangers of superintelligence, synthetic biology, consciousness & neuroscience, augmented reality, and more.

Though I’ve known Chris for decades and have spent hundreds of hours in conversation with him, I learned quite a bit from this interview. Read the rest

Space archaeology: A conversation with TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak

The After On podcast a series of unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders, and scientists. It began as a complement to the novel After On, in that its first eight episodes explore science, tech, and social issues featured in the storyline. But there is no need to read After On before listening to any of these episodes. You can subscribe to the podcast within any podcast app. Simply use your app's search function (type in "After On") to find and subscribe. Or, to subscribe via your computer click here, then click the blue “View on iTunes” button (left side of the page under the After On image), then click “Subscribe” (similar location) in the iTunes window. Or simply follow the feed http://afteron.libsyn.com/rss

Ask any archaeologist, and you'll learn that the tools of their trade are simple and universal: a pointing trowel for excavation; a brush for removing dust from finds; side arms to fend off Nazi grave robbers; and a large constellation of satellites.

That last item joined the toolkit back in 1984, when NASA's Tom Sever (who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher, and must be sick of being asked if he is) convened an archaeological summit to offer up images and other goodies from his agency. And with that, the field of space archaeology was.

In roughly the same year, the Tooth Fairy delivered a children's book about ancient Egypt to one Sarah Parcak, age 5, of Bangor Maine. An early childhood obsession with pharaonic culture is common amongst future Egyptologists, and Sarah's began then. Read the rest

After On Podcast: The Tim O’Reilly Interview

In this week’s episode of the After On podcast, I interview Tim O’Reilly – one of the most original and influential thinkers in tech. His new book, WTF, debuts today. And it doesn’t stand for what you think. We talk about that book, and about the future (that’s the ‘F’ in the acronym). And also about the past. Tim’s past -- which will fascinate anyone interested in the history of the commercial Web, open source software, the maker movement, the Web 2.0 era, or anything else Tim helped to shape, launch, or name (yes really - he deserves at least some co-founder credit for all of those things).

It’s a been a long, strange trip for someone who spent his college years studying Latin and Greek. Tim was drawn to those subjects because as a teen, he fell under the spell of George Simon - a brainy mentor who argued that the last great evolution in human consciousness dated to the classical period. Tim wanted to understand that period – and that transformation – because George convinced him that the next one would happen in his lifetime. This would be the emergence of a global consciousness.

George died suddenly, tragically, and young in a car wreck shortly after starting to teach at the Esalen Institute. Interest in his emerging philosophy was so high that Esalen recruited Tim as an instructor when he was still in his teens. Not craving a life of spiritual teaching, Tim then pivoted to technology shortly after graduating Harvard in the late 70s. Read the rest

Chris Anderson: Drone mogul and former bass player for REM (no, not *that* REM).

(Photo: Joi Ito, CC-BY)

He’s not the only major figure in the world of tech and ideas who goes by Chris Anderson. His namesake runs the TED conference - whereas the Chris Anderson of this article was Editor-in-Chief of Wired for twelve years. During that stint, he co-founded a company that helped launch the consumer drone industry, which he now runs (the company - not the industry).

There are those who think these guys are one solitary, mega overachiever, but no. They could settle who has rights to the name through some kind of brainy public smackdown - the nerd equivalent of a battle of the bands, say. But not a chance. This Chris Anderson has been through that once already. With his band. They were called REM.

No - not that REM. That REM clobbered Team Chris in musical combat back in 1991 (at the storied 9:30 club in Washington), winning rights to the name. Chris’s band then took Mike Mills’ suggestion that they rebrand as Egoslavia – a clever-ish name back when Yugoslavia wasn’t just a fading memory and a handful of spinoffs.

Chris and I cover this, plus the story of his impressively misspent youth in an hour-plus interview you can listen to right here (or by typing the name of the podcast series – “After On” – into the search bar of your favorite podcast app):

But we mainly talk about drones, his company (3D Robotics, or 3DR), and how he launched and grew it to millions in revenues in partnership with a Tijuana teen, while winning awards for running the world’s most influential tech magazine as a day job. Read the rest

On the astounding lack of extraterrestrials ‘round Here

If you’ve ever looked around and wondered, where are all the aliens, hit Play, below. No, you won’t find an alien. But you’ll hear a luxuriously unhurried interview with British astronomer Stephen Webb. He has probably given this question more careful thought than any living person, and many (but by no means all) of his reflections can be found in his brilliant book, Where Is Everybody.

This is the eighth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

Today’s interviewee is a world-leading expert on the subject of Fermi’s paradox – which is encapsulated in his book’s title. And the paradox’s roots are quite literally as old as Earth itself.

Life arose here – presumably from dead matter – almost as soon as the collisions and volcanism of planetary formation calmed enough to permit its existence. If that’s a normal pattern, billions of planets out there should harbor some form of life. Because some of those planets are billions of years older than ours, their brainier occupants could have far surpassed today’s technology when our forerunners still had fins. Yet we see no evidence of this. And it’s not for a lack of seeking it, as there are scientists who have done little else for decades.

There isn’t just one possible solution to Fermi’s paradox. Read the rest

What are the real risks we humans could face from a rogue AI superintelligence?

To hear a wide-ranging interview about the real-world risks we humans could face from a rogue superintelligence, hit play, below. My guest is author and documentary filmmaker James Barrat. Barrat’s 2014 book Our Final Invention was the gateway drug that ushered me into the narcotic realm of contemplating super AI risk. So it’s on first-hand authority that I urge you to jump in – the water’s great!

This is the seventh episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

The danger of artificial consciousness has a noble pedigree in science fiction. In most minds, its wellspring is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features HAL 9000 – an onboard computer that decides to kill off its passengers before they can disconnect it (spoiler: HAL’s rookie season ends – rather abruptly – with a 1-1 record).

James’s interest in this subject was piqued when he interviewed 2001’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, back in the pertinent year of 2001. Clarke’s concerns about superintelligence went beyond the confines of fiction. And he expressed them cogently enough to freak James out to this day.

Among James’s worries is that Hollywood has inoculated many of us from taking super AIs seriously by depicting them so preposterously. “Imagine if the Centers for Disease Control issued a serious warning about vampires,” he notes. Read the rest

How Sam Harris Became Sam Harris (plus, many a thought on terrorism and AI risk)

Hit play, below, to hear an unhurried interview with author, podcaster and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Few have denounced President Trump at greater length, or on more certain terms than Sam. He is equally denunciatory about political correctness – which, he believes, threatens free speech – and anyone he deems soft on Islamic terrorism. All this triggers gales of outrage on the left and the right alike – making Sam, in his way, a unifying figure. I should note his fans also span the spectrum.

This is the sixth episode of my podcast series (co-hosted by Tom Merritt), which launched here on Boing Boing last month. The series goes deep into the science, tech, and sociological issues explored in my novel After On – but no familiarity with the novel is necessary to listen to it.

In our interview, Sam and I have a deep discussion about nihilistic terrorism – a major preoccupation of his, and of my novel. We also spend about an hour discussing the journey that shaped his unusual worldview.

Oddly for a strong student at a top school (Stanford), Sam dropped out of college for ten years. Oddly for a 10-year dropout, he suddenly returned to finish his philosophy degree with honors. Oddly for a philosophy major, he then got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, while – flat-out bizarrely for a neuroscientist – writing a bestselling geopolitical book (The End of Faith). Yes, drugs were involved. As were entire years spent in silent meditation, plus boundless hours steeping in spirituality. Read the rest

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