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Living forever, cheap satellites and the wonders of deep tech:

A conversation with Gemma Milne

Science. For some of us, the word conjures up a world for of exciting new possibilities. For others, it might bring up foggy memories of high school chemistry class. But no matter which side of the spectrum you fall on, it’s undeniable: the latest scientific developments have the potential to impact each and every one of our lives.

To help us separate fact from (science) fiction, get an educated opinion on the biotech topics this year’s speakers will be discussing, and figure out if we need to be fearful of new discoveries, we reached out to science and technology journalist, Gemma Milne. Besides covering some of the most intriguing innovations in deep tech, co-founding an organization called Science: Disrupt, and working on her first book, there’s one more reason we were excited to talk to Gemma: She’ll be joining us to host the Science track at the 2019 me Convention.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

MC: Can you help me and our readers get a better idea of what’s going on in the world of science? Let’s start with one of our speakers, Aubrey de Grey. What’s your take on his ideas about living forever?

GM: There are two different sides to the discussion around aging. One side is that I think classifying aging as a disease is a really interesting idea. Mainly from the perspective that it gives a level of focus for the industry and rethinks the way we fund it. If we see aging as a disease the same way that cancer is, you can start funneling money and research into these areas, which I think is compelling, and definitely makes the scene be taken a lot more seriously by the public and the media.

The other side of your question, about living forever, I think that’s less of a science question and more of an ethical question. Why do we as humans even want to live forever? What does that do to our motivation and our careers and our passions? Much of what we do and are motivated by is because of scarcity: “life is short.” So if life is long, what does “being human” mean?

Shouldn’t living be about quality of life as opposed to quantity of life?

MC: On the practical side, let’s assume we all lived to 150 and have a good health…what does that mean for the shape of society, people’s working years and how we fund different things?

GM: One of the big things people talk about is if everyone lives forever, how will our health systems deal with that? At the moment, most of the money is spent on things like heart disease, diabetes and chronic disease. If you were to “cure” aging, you would have less people using the health system for those sorts of things, so you would save money.

In terms of working, the way we’re working has changed already. Being able to do everything digitally, over email, over Skype – we’re already setting up the way work works for a healthier, longer-living society. Even the idea of retiring at much older ages –

if you’re more capable at an older age, it opens up far more opportunities to continue working if you so choose - especially as many jobs nowadays aren't so physical.

MC: Let’s jump over to another speaker, Samuel Sternberg, and CRISPR. To be honest, I’m not up on the latest developments. What’s going on there?

GM: In terms of what it is, it’s a tool — a tool for editing genes. We’ve been able to edit genes for a while – that’s not what new. What’s new is that it’s really precise, really cheap, and really fast. So instead of it being this long procedure that costs loads of money, they’re estimating that you could “do” CRISPR for $75 in a couple of hours.

It’s interesting because it opens up lots of opportunities. So, if we know that a disease is caused by the gene for X – if you can remove that gene, you remove the propensity to have that disease. For cancer, people are interested in it because if you take a genetic sample of the tumor and understand what’s going on with it, you can then create therapies and edit the tumor. Beyond healthcare, it’s also really interesting for food. I find the idea that you can you use CRISPR to make certain foods more nutritional really fascinating.

What happened in China last year was a big CRISPR story – researcher He Jiankui edited the genes of twin girls to make them HIV resistant. Everyone got really angry about it, and understandably so, because a lot of people would argue that ethically, we’re not really ready to start editing in real live humans yet. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this therapy are. So, with CRISPR, it’s what we use it for, and how we regulate it that’s the issue.

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.

MC: Finally, please tell me more about you – what you’re working on and your book.

GM: I have a couple of different hats. I’m a writer – I write about deep tech, science, technology, and society. I’m most interested in deep tech – which is technology that’s spinning out of science labs. Things like biotechnology, quantum computing, energy sector, health, space and farming. Basically, anything that happens behind the scenes and isn’t consumer facing.

My book is about hype and idealism in science and tech. It has 9 chapters and each focus on a different area in science and technology. There’s a batteries chapter, a foods chapter, an AI chapter, etc. The idea is to unpick how you can look at these vast, complex ecosystems. It’s not about explaining these technologies, it’s more about how to critically think around them and look at things from different perspectives. So not just looking at the science, but looking at the politics, society and economics as well.

I’m also co-founder of an organization called Science:Disrupt. That’s all about innovators, iconoclasts and entrepreneurs creating change in science. It’s basically looking at how we can do science differently. Like how do we think differently about the process of peer review, or how do we make the PhD programs fairer? It’s also about spin-outs – how to get science out of the lab and into the market.

Thirdly, I do investment stuff. I’m an assessor for Innovate UK for deep tech grants. I was also a subject matter expert for the European Commission for the Horizon 2020 grants. I’m now a scout for a VC in London, and I’m always on the lookout for deep tech startups.

MC: Wow, so many things!

It’s a lot. I’m super lucky to get to do this. I’m in a fortunate position that I don’t have to stick to traditional tech journalism and can write about things that not everyone has that level of expertise on, but they will in a couple of years, so I have to stay ahead of the curve!

Because I look into these topics so far in advance, once they get a lot of coverage, I can get frustrated when things are over-exaggerated or dumbed down to such an extent that people can’t really understand them properly. Then I think: It’s more complicated, and therefore more interesting than this. It’s far more interesting than what’s being said! But maybe I’m an optimist.

MC: I think that’s a perfect note to close on. I like your optimism. For those of us who aren’t scientists, just because we don’t know or don’t grasp everything, doesn’t mean we have to lean to the side of fear. Let’s spark our curiosity and our interest, and discover the possibilities!

GM: I could not agree more.

Disclaimer: The views of me Convention speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Mercedes-Benz and/or SXSW.