Hopefully a lot of people watching out for those twins to see what’s going on with them. This situation might be the impetus to build the ecosystem around this technology faster, and try and get it to market faster and safer. I don’t think it’s a good thing that happened in China, but I think that we can do good as a result of what happened.
MC: I think some people have the impression that CRISPR could be used to create designer babies for the rich. Do you see that as a realistic fear?
GM: Most fears are realistic, but a lot of times fear comes from a place of not understanding all the moving parts of what’s going on. The idea of designer babies isn’t something that I personally fear. Mainly because I feel like there’s quite a lot of steps before that could become a reality. Regulation is a big one. And there’s sometimes a misunderstanding of what exactly you can do with the genes. This idea of a checklist – we don’t always have a gene for X.
For me, it’s less about the fact that the technology exists, and it’s far more about humans. If we decide to have designer babies, that’s a societal decision, not a technology decision. It’s far more about how we regulate spinning off this technology, how we keep a check on what businesses are doing, what kind of patents are they filing, and what sort of business models are being built. Instead of just being fearful, we should take a broader view.
MC: Will all of this seem completely normal in a few years, like with IVF and other advances that seemed outlandish when they first appeared?
GM: I actually wrote an article for the BBC about the fact that last year was the 40th anniversary of IVF/the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived with IVF. When you look at the way the media covered IVF at that time, they were talking about designer babies, test tube babies, Frankensteins – all these words being used to elicit a lot of fear. Nowadays, IVF is really quite normal. Maybe people talk about how it’s hard, but nobody talks about it being unethical. So, you could argue that within 40 years we’ve had this complete polar shift.
The narrative around biology – the idea of messing with biology or editing bodies or augmenting ourselves – I think it’s problematic, because it distracts people from the more medical side, which at the end of the day is the side that has the most funding, the most movement, and what the vast majority of people are using it for.
MC: Besides CRISPR, what are some of the most promising developments in biotech or beyond? What makes you most excited? What do you think normal people will benefit from in 5 years?
GM: Looking at what will affect us in the short term, I’m really interested in the commercialization of space – particularly satellite technology. The satellite industry is completely booming. Because the cost of sending a satellite to space now is so low, the opportunity for more people to innovate and come up with ideas and then execute them in orbit is huge.
There’s a lot of benefit to be had around the data we can gather from imaging from above. If you look at farming, flood prevention and adverse weather, there’s all different insights that can massively benefit society. It’s also a problematic industry because we’re putting so many satellites up that we’re going to have a lot of space junk, and regulation is slow. We don’t have a traffic management system for space, so there’s no one in charge and there are major issues around legislation.
I’m interested in what’s going on with batteries as well. At the end of the day, we need better batteries in order to have electric cars, but also if we want renewables to be an option. At the moment, we can’t only use renewables to fuel the planet – it simply doesn’t make sense economically. With the right batteries, we’ll get a lot closer.
That topic is also interesting geopolitically. For example, China has a double play where they’re investing in electric vehicles, but they’re also massively investing in batteries. Which then brings up big questions around ownership of energy and ownership of internal systems… In Europe we have all these rules about having electric cars on the road by 2025. And the only country that can satisfy that demand is China. So, there’s a real interesting thing going on at the moment concerning how we manage these targets vs. the supply chain factors.