Today is the release of THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY, the latest book by the world-renowned physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. In it, he explores the astonishing technologies that could propel us to live on other planets and even to live forever. LeapsMag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff recently chatted with Dr. Kaku about some of the ethical implications we need to consider as we hurtle toward our destiny among the stars. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Technology is like a double-edged sword. The question is, who wields it?"
A big part of your book discusses living on Mars, and you mention that nanotech, biotech and AI could help us do so in the next 100 years. But you also note that efforts to make the Red Planet habitable could backfire, such as using genetic engineering to produce an ideal fertilizer, which could make one life form push out all the others. How should we judge when a powerful new technology is ready to be tested?
Technology is like a double-edged sword. One side can cut against ignorance, poverty, disease. But the other side can cut against people. The question is, who wields the sword? It has to be wielded by people's interests. We have to look not at the needs of the military or corporations, but society as a whole, and we have to realize that every technology, not just the ones I mentioned in the book, has a dark side as well as a positive side.
On the positive side, you could terraform Mars using genetic engineering to create algae, plants that could thrive in the Martian atmosphere, and a self-sustaining agriculture where we could raise food crops. However, it has to be done carefully, because we don't want to have it overrun Mars, just like we have certain plants that overrun the natural environment here on Earth. So we have to do it slowly. It cannot be done all of a sudden in a crash program. We have to see what happens if we begin to terraform stretches of Martian landscape.
Elon Musk of SpaceX, who has pioneered much of these technologies, has stated that we can jumpstart terraforming Mars by detonating hydrogen bombs over the polar ice caps. Later he had to qualify that by saying that they are airbursts, not ground bursts, to minimize radiation. Other people have said, we don't know what a nuclear weapon would do. Would it destabilize Mars? Would it open cracks in the ice caps? So we have to think things through, not just make proposals. Another proposal is to use silver mirrors in space to reflect sunlight down to melt the ice caps, and that would be more environmentally friendly than using hydrogen bombs.
"Our grandkids, when they hit the age of 30, they may just decide to stop aging, and live at age 30 for many decades to come."
As far as colonizing Mars, you also talk about technologies that could potentially help us end aging, but you note that this could exacerbate overpopulation and an exodus from Earth -- the double-edged sword again. What's your personal view on whether anti-aging research should be pursued?
Anti-aging research is accelerating because of the human genome. We're now able to map the genomes of old people, compare them with the genomes of young people, and we can see where aging takes place. For example, in a car, aging takes place in the engine, because that's where we have moving parts and combustion. Where do we find that in a cell? The mitochondria, and so we do see a concentration of error build-up in the mitochondria, and we can envision one day repairing the mistakes, which could in turn increase our life span. Also we're discovering new enzymes like telomerase which allow us to stop the clock. So it's conceivable, I think not for my generation, but for the coming generations, perhaps our grandkids, when they hit the age of 30, they may just decide to stop aging, and live at age 30 for many decades to come.
The other byproduct of this of course is overpopulation. That's a social problem, but realize in places like Japan, we have the opposite problem, under-population, because the birth rate has fallen way below the replacement level, people live too long, and there's very little immigration there. Europe is next. So we have this bizarre situation where some places like Sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding, but other places we're going to see a contraction. Overall, the population will continue to rise, but it's going to slow down. Instead of this exponential curve that many people see in the media, it's going to be shaped like an "S" that rises rapidly and then seals off. The UN is now beginning to entertain the possibility that the population of the Earth may seal off sometime by the end of the century--that we'll hit a steady state.
"In the future, that composite image may be holographic, with all your videotapes, your memories, to create a near approximation of who you are, and centuries from now, you may have digital immortality."
Later in the book, you talk about achieving immortality through storing your digital consciousness, uploading your brain to a computer. Many people today find that notion bizarre or even repulsive, but you also wisely note that "what seems unethical or even immoral today might be ordinary or mundane in the future." What do you think is the key to bridging the gap between controversial breakthroughs and public acceptance?
I imagine that if someone from the Middle Ages, who is fresh from burning witches and heretics and torturing non-believers, were to wind up today in our society, they might go crazy. They might think all of society is a product of the Devil, because attitudes toward morality change. So we humans today cannot dictate what morality will be like 100 years from now. For example, test tube babies. When Louise Brown (the first test tube baby) was first born, the Catholic Church denounced it. Now, today, your wife, husband, you may be a test tube baby and we don't even blink.
There's a Silicon Valley company today that will take what is known about you on the Internet, your credit card transactions, your emails, and create a composite image of you. In the future, that composite image may be holographic, with all your videotapes, your memories, to create a near approximation of who you are, and centuries from now, you may have digital immortality—your memories, your sensations, will be recorded accurately, and an avatar will recreate it. Like for example, I wouldn't mind talking to Einstein. I wouldn't mind sitting down with the guy and having a great conversation about the universe.
And the Connectome Project, by the end of the century, will map the entire brain--that's every neuron--just like the genome project has mapped every gene. And we live with it, we don't even think twice about the fact that our genome exists. In the future, our connectome will also exist. And the connectome can reproduce your thoughts, your dreams, your sensations. We'll just live with that fact; it will be considered ordinary.
"A hundred years from now, we may want to merge with some of these technologies, rather than have to compete with robots."
Wow. In such a "post-human" era, our bodies could be replaced by robots or maintained by genetic engineering. Once these technologies become commercially available, do you think people should have the freedom to make changes or enhancements to themselves?
I think there should be laws passed at a certain point to prevent parents from going crazy trying to genetically engineer their child. Once we isolate the genes for studying, for good behavior, things like that, we may be tempted to tinker with it. I think a certain amount of tinkering is fine, but we don't want to let it get out of control. There has to be limits.
Also, we are in competition with robots of the future. A hundred years from now, robots are going to become very intelligent. Some people think they're going to take over. My attitude is that a hundred years from now, we may want to merge with some of these technologies, rather than have to compete with robots. But we're not going to look like some freaky robot because we're genetically hardwired to look good to the opposite sex, to look good to our peers. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, and hundreds of thousands of years into the future, we'll still look the same. We'll genetically modify ourselves a little bit, but we'll basically look the same.
That's an interesting point. It's amazing how fast technology is moving overall. Like at one point in the book, you mention that primates had never been cloned, but a few weeks ago, news broke that this just happened in China. Do you think we should slow down the dramatic pace of acceleration and focus on the ethical considerations, or should we still move full-steam ahead?
Well, CRISPR technology has accelerated us more than we previously thought. In the past, to tinker with genes, you had to cut and splice, and it was a lot of guesswork and trial and error. Now, you can zero in on the cutting process and streamline it, so cutting and splicing genes becomes much more accurate, and you can edit them just like you edit a book. Within the field of bioengineering, they have set up their own conferences to begin to police themselves into figuring out which domains are ethically dangerous and which areas can provide benefits for humanity, because they realize that this technology can go a little bit too fast.
"Where does truth come from? Truth comes from interaction with incorrect ideas."
You cannot recall a life form. Once a life form is created, it reproduces. That's what life does. If it reproduces outside the laboratory, it could take over. So we want to make sure that we don't have to recall a life form, like you would recall a Ford or a Chevrolet. Eventually governments may have to slow down the pace because it's moving very rapidly.
Lastly, you talk about the importance of democratic debate to resolve how controversial technology should be used. How can science-minded people bring the rest of society into these conversations, so that as much of society as possible is represented?
It's a question of where does truth come from? Truth comes from interaction with incorrect ideas--the collision of truth and untruth, rumors and fact. It doesn't come from a machine where you put in a quarter, and out comes the answer. It requires democratic debate. And that's where the Internet comes in, that's where the media comes in, that's where this interview comes in. You want to stimulate and educate the people so they know the dangers and promises of technology, and then engage with them about the moral implications, because these things are going to affect every aspect of our life in the future.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.