Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rebooting - Juan Enriquez

The 25th edition of TED started officially today in the new Long Beach digs which accommodate about 1300 people, a considerable increase over Monterey's capacity. There were also 450 people attending a realtime simulcast version of TED in Palm Desert.
The first session was titled Rebooting, and the opening speaker was Juan Enriques,who 'thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and the life science will cause in business, tehcnology, politics and society'. But he also comments on political and social trends, as in his excellent book The Untied States of America (no typo there).
Today, he tackled both the political and the technological. He started by talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the financial crisis. He referred to a favourite quote of mine from a recent Economist article on Sir Philip Hampton, Chair of Royal Bank of Scotland, who said "The key to managing crises, is to keep an eye on the long term while you’re dancing in the flames.”
Enriquez dramatized America's excesses by pointing out that while a normal commercial bank is leveraged nine times (a bit less in Canada), Bank of America had been leveraged 32 times and Citibank 47 times. Moreover, he bluntly stated that America is in dire peril of 'losing the dollar'. And if the American dollar loses its power and value, the consequences will be dire. He shared a message for the US from its biggest investor, the China Investment Corporation, "You should be nice to countries that lend you money." And more ominously, that China would keep on supporting the US "as long as it is sustainable".
Enriquez' message is that basically the US has to start living within its means, and take some hard medicine. He reminded us that Japan's 225 largest companies are worth 1/4 of what they were worth 18 years ago, because Japan didn't take its medicine fast enough in their crisis.
Clearly the US is 'dancing in the flames'.
However, Enriquez said that the US nevertheless had to 'keep its eye on the future', that future being advances on three hugely significant fronts:
  1. Ability to create cells. Craig Ventor last year told us of the first fully programmable cell, where you could insert DNA into any cell and create the organism of your choice. This is not future stuff. It's here today.
  2. Ability to create tissues. We can now create not just cells, but whole tissues. A recent operation sprayed stem cells on an artificial trachea, which grew a new trachea in 72 hours flat. You can grow mice molars in petri dishes, and also human teeth this way. You can create new ears for injured soldiers. Nine women in Boston are walking around with newly generated bladders instead of colostomy bags. You can scrape away the cells of a diseased heart down to the cartilege, spray with stem cells and regenerate a heart. It's here today.
  3. Robots. The Turing test says that if you can have a conversation with a computer and that conversation is indistinguishable from talking to a person, then you have true articifial intelligence. A physcial Turing test is when a robot can have physical movement that is indistinguishable from a live organism. A video of Botson Dynamics' Big Dog showed such robot behaviour. It's here today. An exciting front is robots that can be implanted in humans, such as ears or eyes. And as soon as those robots deliver an organ 'as good as' our own, you can be sure the next step will be to deliver organs better than our own.

These advances have profound consquences for society that we need to think about and prepare for. In fact, returning to the theme, you can think of them as rebooting a species. In fact, Enriquez predicted that these advances will change the characteristics of humans enough to justify being called a new species - Homo Evolutis. After all, he pointed out, 5 species of hominids have overlapped, and there's no reason to think there won't be another hominid species that will overlap with our own. He suggested this is all close enough that while we might only see glimmerings of this future, our grandchildren will live it. It's that close.

On the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, this is indeed food for thought of how humans might evolve.

1 comment:

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