Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • So let me with start with Roy Amara.

  • Roy's argument is that most new technologies tend to be overestimated

  • in their impact to begin with,

  • and then they get underestimated in the long term

  • because we get used to them.

  • These really are days of miracle and wonder.

  • You remember that wonderful song by Paul Simon?

  • There were two lines in it.

  • So what was it that was considered miraculous back then?

  • Slowing down things -- slow motion --

  • and the long-distance call.

  • Because, of course, you used to get interrupted by operators

  • who'd tell you, "Long distance calling. Do you want to hang up?"

  • And now we think nothing of calling all over the world.

  • Well, something similar may be happening

  • with reading and programming life.

  • But before I unpack that,

  • let's just talk about telescopes.

  • Telescopes were overestimated originally in their impact.

  • This is one of Galileo's early models.

  • People thought it was just going to ruin all religion.

  • (Laughter)

  • So we're not paying that much attention to telescopes.

  • But, of course, telescopes launched 10 years ago, as you just heard,

  • could take this Volkswagen, fly it to the moon,

  • and you could see the lights on that Volkswagen light up on the moon.

  • And that's the kind of resolution power that allowed you to see

  • little specks of dust floating around distant suns.

  • Imagine for a second that this was a sun a billion light years away,

  • and you had a little speck of dust that came in front of it.

  • That's what detecting an exoplanet is like.

  • And the cool thing is, the telescopes that are now being launched

  • would allow you to see a single candle lit on the moon.

  • And if you separated it by one plate,

  • you could see two candles separately at that distance.

  • And that's the kind of resolution that you need

  • to begin to image that little speck of dust

  • as it comes around the sun

  • and see if it has a blue-green signature.

  • And if it does have a blue-green signature,

  • it means that life is common in the universe.

  • The first time you ever see a blue-green signature on a distant planet,

  • it means there's photosynthesis there,

  • there's water there,

  • and the chances that you saw the only other planet with photosynthesis

  • are about zero.

  • And that's a calendar-changing event.

  • There's a before and after we were alone in the universe:

  • forget about the discovery of whatever continent.

  • So as you're thinking about this,

  • we're now beginning to be able to image most of the universe.

  • And that is a time of miracle and wonder.

  • And we kind of take that for granted.

  • Something similar is happening in life.

  • So we're hearing about life in these little bits and pieces.

  • We hear about CRISPR, and we hear about this technology,

  • and we hear about this technology.

  • But the bottom line on life is that life turns out to be code.

  • And life as code is a really important concept because it means,

  • just in the same way as you can write a sentence

  • in English or in French or Chinese,

  • just in the same way as you can copy a sentence,

  • just in the same way as you can edit a sentence,

  • just in the same way as you can print a sentence,

  • you're beginning to be able to do that with life.

  • It means that we're beginning to learn how to read this language.

  • And this, of course, is the language that is used by this orange.

  • So how does this orange execute code?

  • It doesn't do it in ones and zeroes like a computer does.

  • It sits on a tree, and one day it does:

  • plop!

  • And that means: execute.

  • AATCAAG: make me a little root.

  • TCGACC: make me a little stem.

  • GAC: make me some leaves. AGC: make me some flowers.

  • And then GCAA: make me some more oranges.

  • If I edit a sentence in English on a word processor,

  • then what happens is you can go from this word to that word.

  • If I edit something in this orange

  • and put in GCAAC, using CRISPR or something else that you've heard of,

  • then this orange becomes a lemon,

  • or it becomes a grapefruit,

  • or it becomes a tangerine.

  • And if I edit one in a thousand letters,

  • you become the person sitting next to you today.

  • Be more careful where you sit.

  • (Laughter)

  • What's happening on this stuff is it was really expensive to begin with.

  • It was like long-distance calls.

  • But the cost of this is dropping 50 percent faster than Moore's law.

  • The first $200 full genome was announced yesterday by Veritas.

  • And so as you're looking at these systems,

  • it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, and then it does.

  • So let me just give you the map view of this stuff.

  • This is a big discovery.

  • There's 23 chromosomes.

  • Cool.

  • Let's now start using a telescope version, but instead of using a telescope,

  • let's use a microscope to zoom in

  • on the inferior of those chromosomes,

  • which is the Y chromosome.

  • It's a third the size of the X. It's recessive and mutant.

  • But hey,

  • just a male.

  • And as you're looking at this stuff,

  • here's kind of a country view

  • at a 400 base pair resolution level,

  • and then you zoom in to 550, and then you zoom in to 850,

  • and you can begin to identify more and more genes as you zoom in.

  • Then you zoom in to the state level,

  • and you can begin to tell who's got leukemia,

  • how did they get leukemia, what kind of leukemia do they have,

  • what shifted from what place to what place.

  • And then you zoom in to the Google street view level.

  • So this is what happens if you have colorectal cancer

  • for a very specific patient on the letter-by-letter resolution.

  • So what we're doing in this stuff is we're gathering information

  • and just generating enormous amounts of information.

  • This is one of the largest databases on the planet

  • and it's growing faster than we can build computers to store it.

  • You can create some incredible maps with this stuff.

  • You want to understand the plague and why one plague is bubonic

  • and the other one is a different kind of plague

  • and the other one is a different kind of plague?

  • Well, here's a map of the plague.

  • Some are absolutely deadly to humans,

  • some are not.

  • And note, by the way, as you go to the bottom of this,

  • how does it compare to tuberculosis?

  • So this is the difference between tuberculosis and various kinds of plagues,

  • and you can play detective with this stuff,

  • because you can take a very specific kind of cholera

  • that affected Haiti,

  • and you can look at which country it came from,

  • which region it came from,

  • and probably which soldier took that from that African country to Haiti.

  • Zoom out.

  • It's not just zooming in.

  • This is one of the coolest maps ever done by human beings.

  • What they've done is taken all the genetic information they have

  • about all the species,

  • and they've put a tree of life on a single page

  • that you can zoom in and out of.

  • So this is what came first, how did it diversify, how did it branch,

  • how large is that genome,

  • on a single page.

  • It's kind of the universe of life on Earth,

  • and it's being constantly updated and completed.

  • And so as you're looking at this stuff,

  • the really important change is the old biology used to be reactive.

  • You used to have a lot of biologists that had microscopes,

  • and they had magnifying glasses and they were out observing animals.

  • The new biology is proactive.

  • You don't just observe stuff, you make stuff.

  • And that's a really big change

  • because it allows us to do things like this.

  • And I know you're really excited by this picture.

  • (Laughter)

  • It only took us four years and 40 million dollars

  • to be able to take this picture.

  • (Laughter)

  • And what we did

  • is we took the full gene code out of a cell --

  • not a gene, not two genes, the full gene code out of a cell --

  • built a completely new gene code,

  • inserted it into the cell,

  • figured out a way to have the cell execute that code

  • and built a completely new species.

  • So this is the world's first synthetic life form.

  • And so what do you do with this stuff?

  • Well, this stuff is going to change the world.

  • Let me give you three short-term trends

  • in terms of how it's going to change the world.

  • The first is we're going to see a new industrial revolution.

  • And I actually mean that literally.

  • So in the same way as Switzerland and Germany and Britain

  • changed the world with machines like the one you see in this lobby,

  • created power --

  • in the same way CERN is changing the world,

  • using new instruments and our concept of the universe --

  • programmable life forms are also going to change the world

  • because once you can program cells

  • in the same way as you program your computer chip,

  • then you can make almost anything.

  • So your computer chip can produce photographs,

  • can produce music, can produce film,

  • can produce love letters, can produce spreadsheets.

  • It's just ones and zeroes flying through there.

  • If you can flow ATCGs through cells,

  • then this software makes its own hardware,

  • which means it scales very quickly.

  • No matter what happens,

  • if you leave your cell phone by your bedside,

  • you will not have a billion cell phones in the morning.

  • But if you do that with living organisms,

  • you can make this stuff at a very large scale.

  • One of the things you can do is you can start producing

  • close to carbon-neutral fuels

  • on a commercial scale by 2025,

  • which we're doing with Exxon.

  • But you can also substitute for agricultural lands.

  • Instead of having 100 hectares to make oils or to make proteins,

  • you can make it in these vats

  • at 10 or 100 times the productivity per hectare.

  • Or you can store information, or you can make all the world's vaccines

  • in those three vats.

  • Or you can store most of the information that's held at CERN in those three vats.

  • DNA is a really powerful information storage device.

  • Second turn:

  • you're beginning to see the rise of theoretical biology.

  • So, medical school departments are one of the most conservative places on earth.

  • The way they teach anatomy is similar to the way they taught anatomy

  • 100 years ago.

  • "Welcome, student. Here's your cadaver."

  • One of the things medical schools are not good at is creating new departments,

  • which is why this is so unusual.

  • Isaac Kohane has now created a department based on informatics, data, knowledge

  • at Harvard Medical School.

  • And in a sense, what's beginning to happen is

  • biology is beginning to get enough data

  • that it can begin to follow the steps of physics,

  • which used to be observational physics

  • and experimental physicists,

  • and then started creating theoretical biology.

  • Well, that's what you're beginning to see

  • because you have so many medical records,

  • because you have so much data about people:

  • you've got their genomes, you've got their viromes,

  • you've got their microbiomes.

  • And as this information stacks,

  • you can begin to make predictions.

  • The third thing that's happening is this is coming to the consumer.

  • So you, too, can get your genes sequenced.

  • And this is beginning to create companies like 23andMe,

  • and companies like 23andMe are going to be giving you

  • more and more and more data,

  • not just about your relatives,

  • but about you and your body,

  • and it's going to compare stuff,

  • and it's going to compare stuff across time,

  • and these are going to become very large databases.

  • But it's also beginning to affect a series of other businesses

  • in unexpected ways.

  • Normally, when you advertise something, you really don't want the consumer

  • to take your advertisement into the bathroom to pee on.

  • Unless, of course, if you're IKEA.

  • Because when you rip this out of a magazine and you pee on it,

  • it'll turn blue if you're pregnant.

  • (Laughter)

  • And they'll give you a discount on your crib.

  • (Laughter)