GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about the things we do in the present that could have troubling consequences in the future. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't look forward to the future. I mean, there are reasons to be hopeful.
When you think about the future of technology, are you super excited about what it's going to be like in, you know, 10, 20, 30 years?
JUAN ENRIQUEZ: I'm wildly excited.
RAZ: This is Juan Enriquez. He's a futurist and a writer.
ENRIQUEZ: You know, there's just such a long list of stuff. We're going to generate as much data, photographs, books as has been generated in human history in the next two years. And we're just doing this on an exponential level. So our understanding of life, our ability to modify life, our ability to find life on other planets, our ability to redesign genetic code, to increase overall intelligence - there's just so many things going on. It's an extraordinary time to be alive.
RAZ: And Juan is especially excited about something that could fundamentally change life itself. It's called life code.
ENRIQUEZ: What we're doing is we're learning how life is written. So first, biology was observational. We watched what happened. And then, we realized that life was written in DNA, in four base pairs. And then we realized we could copy that DNA by cloning animals, by cloning bacteria, by cloning plants. And now we're at a stage where we can use ways of inserting or deleting or altering genes in such a way that we can edit life code. And that's going to be the biggest single driver of wealth creation, of power, of change in the world for the next foreseeable decades.
RAZ: I mean, what you're talking about and what lots of people in this field are talking about is basically taking control over our evolution.
ENRIQUEZ: I think that's exactly right. And we're at this break point where we're playing on a six-dimensional chess board because you can change the basic DNA code, you can change the way it's executed through proteins, you can change it by changing the environment. There's just a whole lot of places where we can alter how this life code is written, how this life code is edited, how this life code is executed. So you can actually alter species very quickly through selective pressures. And then we've also reached a very strange break point because for 4 billion years, what lived and died on this planet was determined by natural selection and random mutation.
And now what we've done is we've created this parallel evolutionary superhighway that operates on a completely different logic. And we call it unnatural selection. And I'll give you an example. A little Chihuahua, like the Chihuahuas you see walking down Fifth Avenue in those fancy handbags...
ENRIQUEZ: ...That's created by human beings and bred basically from wolves. But if you take that little Chihuahua and you place it in the middle of the African jungle, you're going to see natural selection happen very quickly because that is an animal adapted to human apartment buildings, not to nature.
ENRIQUEZ: And the same thing happens with the cornfield, and the same thing happens with the soybean field. They're the least natural places on earth. They would not be there absent human intervention. So we're determining, to a great extent, about 50 percent of what lives and dies on Earth. And that is a true superpower. I mean, a superpower is not leaping over tall buildings in single bounds. A superpower is not being able to light something on fire if you look at it. A superpower is determining what that life form does and how that life form executes. And that's what we're learning how to do. And we have to, on the one hand, be awed by it, take responsibility for it, understand the ethical moral implications of that. But above all, we have to become literate in this because this is going to be the language that drives the world economy and the world political system.
RAZ: And right now, we're just in the beginning stages of what life code can do. Here's Juan Enriquez on the TED stage.
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ENRIQUEZ: So this life code stuff turns out to be this incredibly powerful way of changing viruses, of changing plants, of changing animals, perhaps even of evolving ourselves. Well, some of these treatments actually end up changing your blood type. Or they'll put male cells in a female body or vice versa, which sounds absolutely horrible until you realize the reason you're doing that is you're substituting bone marrow during cancer treatments. So by taking somebody else's bone marrow, you may be changing some fundamental aspects of yourself. But you're also saving your life. And as you're thinking about this stuff, here's something that happened 20 years ago.
So this is Emma Ott. She's a recent college admittee. She's studying accounting. She played two varsity sport. She graduated as a valedictorian. And that's not particularly extraordinary, except that she's the first human being born to three parents. Why? Because she had a deadly mitochondrial disease that she might have inherited. So when you swap out a third person's DNA and you put it in there, you save the lives of people. But you are also doing germline engineering, which means her kids will be - if she has kids - will be saved and won't go through this. And her kids will be saved, and their grandchildren will be saved, and this passes on.
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RAZ: OK, so the story of Emma Ott is pretty awesome and inspiring and of course, I think, everybody - almost everybody would agree that this is the right thing. We should be doing this kind of stuff. Right? And - but the problem is that it opens up a whole Pandora's box of things we can do. And then it becomes a philosophical question of where we start - where do we stop?
ENRIQUEZ: So imagine for one second that you had a time machine. And somehow, you could bring Grandpa and Grandma back, age 18, and sit them in your living room and have a birds and the bees talk with them. Grandpa, Grandma - do you know that you can now have sex and not have a baby?
RAZ: This is getting weird, by the way, just thinking about my grandparents. But keep going. Keep going.
ENRIQUEZ: So for all of human history, normally, sex equaled baby.
RAZ: Yes, right.
ENRIQUEZ: And now, all of a sudden, you're telling them, no. You've separated sex from conception. And then you continue the talk and you say, and oh, by the way, because I'm doing my graduate degree, maybe what I want to do is to do this in vitro later. And then what you've done is you've separated sex from being with somebody. So all of a sudden, you don't have to physically be with somebody to conceive a child. And their eyes would get very big at that.
RAZ: Yeah, they'd freak out. They'd totally freak out.
ENRIQUEZ: And then the third thing you'd tell them is - oh, by the way - because you can freeze this and because you can freeze fertilized eggs and because you can have a surrogate mother, with today's technology, you could have an identical twin born every 50 years. And at that point, they'd wonder what you were drinking, and they'd storm off.
But see, we take that stuff for granted.
ENRIQUEZ: We think that's just kind of stuff you talk about over a latte as an option. And I think some of the things you're talking about are going to scare us to death but are going to be so normal and natural to our grandkids that they'll kind of go, Grandpa, Grandma - why didn't you have these choices? Why would you allow kids to be born and suffer and give them cancer? Why didn't you have double the lifespan like we have? And that'll just be a menu of stuff that to them will seem, you know, like, of course you can do that. And to us it would be like, you can what?
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ENRIQUEZ: That makes people nervous. So 20 years ago, the various authorities said, why don't we study this for a while? And there are risks to doing stuff and there are risks to not doing stuff because there were a couple dozen people saved by this technology. And then we've been thinking about it for the next 20 years. So as we think about it, as we take the time to say, hey, maybe we should have longer studies - maybe we should do this; maybe we should do that - there are consequences to acting. And there are consequences to not acting - like curing deadly diseases, which, by the way, is completely unnatural. Right?
It is normal and natural for humans to be felled by massive epidemics of polio, of smallpox, of tuberculosis. When we put vaccines into people, we are putting unnatural things into their body because we think the benefit outweighs the risk. Because we've built unnatural plants, unnatural animals, we can feed about 7 billion people. We can do things by creating new life forms.
RAZ: Yeah, I mean - I - the problem is that it allows humans to pick and choose. So one person may say - listen, you know, I don't think that people with red hair deserve to live. And we should just eliminate red-haired humans from the planet, and I know how to do it.
I mean, I'm not saying that that will happen. But if the technology is available, there's a danger that something like that could happen.
ENRIQUEZ: Look, there is always a danger to acting. And some European countries have put what they call a precautionary principle in place. And the precautionary principle says, you can adopt and deploy any technology you want as long as you can show me it will not hurt human beings. And that makes all the sense in the world at a 30,000-foot level. But when you bring that down and you think - OK, could you actually have an electric outlet in a house? Could you have a staircase? Could you use steel? There's a risk-reward ratio to any powerful technology. And yes, there's stuff that can be scary in this stuff. There's also stuff that can cure some really nasty diseases. There's also stuff that can allow us to live much longer, much healthier lives. So you have to measure the upside and the downside and not just be scared of it and not just be complacent about it.
RAZ: Yeah, OK. Fair enough.
ENRIQUEZ: I mean, look, I'm an optimistic curmudgeon, so I despair of some of the current politics on all sides. I despair about the ability to concentrate wealth in a hundred hands, literally a hundred families. Like, I worry about some of the weapons we're creating. But overall, I think we're in a period where we can make an enormous chunk of lives in this world far, far better off.
RAZ: Juan Enriquez - he's a futurist, venture capitalist and co-author of the book "Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection And Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life On Earth." You can see all of his talks at ted.com.
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