We live in a science fiction world where we can grow human organs in pigs and very soon trust AI to diagnose cancer 12 years early. How will your business… and your body… adjust to the future?
In this episode, we talk with Dr. Tiffany Vora, Head of Faculty at Singularity University, about Digital Biology and treating DNA like computer code.
5:00 the global SU faculty
11:00 Digital Biology
17:00 Building DNA like legos
24:00 Radical transparency and programming the future of life
30:00 Bio Brokers… who owns your body’s data?
35:00 Moving from sick-care to healthcare
54:00 Developing your spidey sense
Tiffany’s mission is to boil down the education from the past 1000 years and only keep the good stuff. “And, to burn down the rest! That’s the moon shot, the meta-vision.”
Tiffany started out studying chemistry but then quickly moved into genetics research under Dr. Jane Hubbard. She decided to go to grad school instead of med school after her undergrad at NYU. She worked for a pharmaceutical company for a bit and began learning about cutting edge medicine before starting her PhD at Princeton.
She then invented a genetics tech in her grad program that had 19 million datapoints.
She completed her PhD in molecular biology and then went to teach in Cairo, Egypt. After Egypt, she transitioned out of economics and started her science communications writing and editing business. She worked with Stanford during that time and connected with Singularity University through Stanford.
Tiffany talks about the community feel of the faculty who are mostly come-and-go mentors and teachers. “There’s just a handful of full-time faculty,” she says. The group is always working to generate more and more community and conversation in all the faculty. “I feel like I’m doing my job if I ask the one question that nobody has the answer to.”
Tiffany says the faculty experience is really fun, and each person has the expertise to challenge startups and ask the tough questions that spur companies forward.
SU has parters in 6 different regions who all have similar core values and understanding of technology. Tiffany mentions how much they all learn from each other by sharing expertise from region to region.
Where is Tiffany learning about tech innovation?
“My biggest bias is that I believe technology can be used for good. I don’t believe that the robot apocalypse is coming. …I have very strong positions about that!”
Tiffany is a biologist by training, but she watches space tech, blockchain and AI to look for convergence points. How will these fields come together to create new solutions?
11:15 This field helps us conceptualize biology in the same way we think about tech. All life on earth stores life as “A, C, T, G.” So anything you can do with computer code you can do with genetic code.
If you want to move large chunks of code? That’s genetic engineering.
Want to write your code from scratch? That’s synthetic biology.
Want to debug the code one letter at a time? That’s genome editing.
So, we really can think as if the biology is the technology. This is the science that is most closely infiltrating our daily lives, Tiffany says.
What do the next 5-10 years look like for business owners and the rest of us?
As information becomes digitized, a whole new landscape opens for people and businesses. Once it’s digitized, we can:
Turn it into AI
Track it and create patterns and trends to predict people’s needs
Fix problems in biology with tech
Locate where problems are coming from
The first time the human genome was mapped was hugely expensive – thousands and thousands. Now, you can get the same information at about $200. That’s a huge business opportunity!
17:00 Now, you can build DNA molecules from scratch, like 3D printing. It’s becoming faster and cheaper, and you can create longer pieces. The longer the pieces you can create, the closer you get to writing full life programs.
I could then have the power now to program a bacterial species to eat the oil up after an oil spill. It’s like thinking about biological and life science problems with an engineering mindset. You can even make CBD and THC with yeast molecules!
So, Tiffany says, “We think about, what am I trying to do that life has already figured out how to do? How can we learn from what the natural world is trying to tell us?”
“Anything I can do to a bacterium, I can do to a human. What we can do right now is use gene editing and a couple of other tricks to make sure that no mosquito on earth could give a disease like malaria or yellow fever.
What that means is if you were to release these mosquitos into the wild you could probably affect every mosquito on the planet in about 18months. Now, we’re actually talking about what species we want to edit or wipeout.”
24:00 Tiffany talks about radical transparency and talking to the recipients, customers, and patients of any shift a government or corporation can make. “We need to be open, transparent, and honest and have as many eyes as possible on as much data as possible. That’s a new way to run a business.”
“Climate change is an existential threat to the human species and every other species on the planet. I don’t see another way that we’re going to get out of this… we can’t throw these tools away. Genetically Modifying Organisms is what humans have been doing for centuries, and it’s been hurting the planet.”
Who owns your Bio-Data?
30:00 Tiffany says she’s watching the field of Bio Brokers. This field is out to give your FitBit data and 23&Me data back to you to own and sell.
This way, individuals would:
Know who has access to the information
Know the value of that information and how to sell it
Know who to sell it to and how they will use it.
Nebula Genomics, for example, has built a cryptocurrency-protected marketplace where you can have your genome mapped and then sell it to companies who need it to test their medical products.
Tiffany talks about tracking inequalities in different demographics- gender-based inequality in access to food and health opportunities. They figured out a way to design a city so that being fit and healthy had more to do with where you live and less to do with your gender.
35:00 Picture a future in which your toilet is looking for cancer DNA in your stool… moving to preventative care that is very accessible.
Also, giving you all the data and information to optimize your own health. There’s “all these misaligned incentives in healthcare… it’s not right that a hospital can order more tests that the patient doesn’t need in order to meet their profit margin.” Now, too, Tiffany says, doctors and nurses are treated as trusted consultants instead of authorities. Think too that instead of taking 8-10 years of training to make a doctor, it will take a few days to program an AI to diagnose more accurately than a doctor.
That’s an education problem… but it’s exciting to think about the health that could be possible for us. And, it’s more about giving doctors a superpower.
Recommendations… are there living things in your supplies?
If we don’t have any more cows in the future because we’re growing beef in a lab, is your gelatin product going to be outmoded?
For real estate… is the house in a food desert? Is obesity more probable in your area? How is the water there? We’ll be thinking about these things in the quality of our daily life.
Future Implications Wheel…
In the example of growing human organs in pigs: what are the other implications?
Should I be able to smoke if I can just get a new pair of lungs?
Will we have less kids if we know we can replace organs in pigs and not through sibling organ transfers?
Where will we put all these pigs?
Will people try to replace their whole body and live forever?
“I do believe we are capable of building technologies and processes that point us toward a more positive future.”
54:00 Tiffany talks about the microbiome industry and the amazing new partnership available now.
“This is how you would write science fiction! It’s almost a wrong term… this is how I think the future is going to learn! Write science fiction for you business so you can let yourself play without rules!”
Dr. Tiffany talks on editing species in this awesome video:
SU works with organizations of all shapes and sizes: corporations, startups, NGOs, governments, academia, you name it! They help people understand how technology is transforming the future and how they can prepare for that transformation. In this episode, hear about…
2:00 How SU addresses the Global Goals
4:00 Solving Problems with Vision Instead of Tactics
33:00 Challenge: Go have a conversation with someone about… the future.
[0:27] Singularity University was founded about a decade ago with a recognition that technology is advancing at an extremely rapid pace in the world, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that these powerful developments of technology are leveraged in a way that makes the world a better place.
“So the mission really is to build this community of leaders that are empowered and equipped to leverage the advancement in technology to tackle some of the greatest challenges that we face in the world,” Brett says.
What is Singularity up to with the Global Goals?
[02:00] SU thinks about addressing the Global Goals in two main ways:
Resource Needs These are the things we need to survive and then societal needs– the things that we need to thrive. So on the one side of resource needs, we’re thinking about everything from food, water to energy, space, and resources.
2. Preparing for the Future These areas of development include education, healthcare, and mitigation of future risks.
To tackle these two categories, SU has developed a very large global community that they have been building for this last decade. Today they are at about 200,000 people in 131 countries in scope.
There are chapters set up in 142 cities around the world, and now they are beginning to launch different types of country partnerships to spread the global footprint. Brett says,
“We tried to bring together around this one common mindset and this one common vision of what we can do together and what we can accomplish.
We believe we have with these tools in our world, like technology to bring about a future of abundance to bring about a future where people, no matter where you are on this planet, you’re no longer experiencing these different types of global grand challenges or they’re at least being reduced in some meaningful way.”
Solving Problems with Vision Instead of Tactics
[04:13] The SU community frames the global grand challenges with a slightly more broad view on the future state that we can imagine within each of these challenge spaces. Brett mentions that there’s something really fascinating in the psychology of problem-solving that has come up as their community has taken on the goals: humans tend to react to problems with fixes and solutions, rather than creating a vision for a new possible future.
“The vision tends to get a much more compelling response from people,” Brett says.
The Stimson Center Study
[04:57] The Stimson center is a nuclear threat reduction think tank. They were curious about why people globally were not actively getting involved in the question of nuclear threat. It’s a very real, very tangible issue for people today… but no one was getting involved.
What they discovered was that the more seriously a threat or a problem was framed, the less likely people were to actually get involved in solving it. It’s sort of an unexpected psychological reaction where people think “oh, if it’s such a serious problem, then someone smarter and more specialized must be taking care of it and I don’t necessarily need to take action.”
This research pointed the Stimson center to look toward the future vision that people can create together. a future vision is more motivating and it doesn’t elicit that same “someone else is taking care of it” reaction.
[05:44] “So that idea is really baked into our approach to the global grand challenges. We’re creating future visions of what we can achieve, and we are inviting people to come together and take action as a community.”
SU’s Global Grand Challenges
The Global Grand Challenges road map will be created together with SU’s global community, faculty, startups and partners to become a core part of their thought leadership. They will:
Help people find the opportunities that truly make sense for them to take on.
Show the small steps each group can take.
Show some of the large steps we can take as a community.
Help orient people toward the types of R&D breakthroughs that we might need in order to push an industry or push a challenge space forward.
They’ll include policy changes that we believe would be very helpful in shaping the correct ecosystem to let this change come about.
The GGC’s will also incorporate technological developments to guide people through leveraging technology.
The Brain Computer
[12:27] Ray Kurzwell had one specific prediction that influences SU greatly: that within 10 or 15 years people will be able to hold in our hands a computer that has the processing power of a human brain for $1,000.
So that’s a computer that can process 16 trillion calculations per second and we’ll have that kind of computing power in their hands.
[14:54] The prediction is that this power of computing and access to technology will be spread all around the world. It will begin opening up completely new markets… completely new communication channels. It will begin to level the playing field a little bit more from country to country and from continent to continent.
The Exponentially Growing SU Community
[20:29] “So we have this massive community of 200,000 people in 131 countries and right now that community convenes primarily around geographies and country partnerships that we have. But we’ve been asking, “how can we start to create smaller action groups within that large Global SU community? Can they come together around existing interests and existing industries?
These are called the Singularity University micro-communities.
Measuring, Reporting and Validating Micro-community Actions
[21:12] Brian asks, “How do we truly take ownership for something that’s happening out in the world, especially when it’s happening in such a distributed manner? We’ve had about 5,000 initiatives reported from around the world… but we know there’s so much more we’re not capturing.”
[24:28] Just this week we launched a brand new feature through our app, which you can download from the App Store or from Google Play and it. It’s a feature called Impact Goals, and we’re kind of asking our community to set some goals with us as we come into 2019.
So it’s a really simple framework for setting the goals that you would like to achieve in whatever timeframe you’re looking for.”
The app has 6 different pathways:
Creation of a new organization
Innovation within your existing organization
Education and awareness campaigns
Mobilization of resources
Pursuing research and development
Challenge: go have a conversation with someone about… the future.
[33:14] We actually have some really amazing pop culture that we can turn to, Brian says. Whether it’s Scifi that you’re reading or it’s TV shows or movies, we already are seeing questions of the ethical dilemmas and the interpersonal dilemmas. And, some of the social challenges we’re going to see.
“We’re beginning to see these really pervade a popular media. And that makes me really, really excited because that provides framing for people to actually engage in the future together. You can look at possible probable futures and have a meaningful conversation about them without really overextending yourself to try to grasp at new information, or find something that’s not in your world.”
Black Mirror and Star Trek
Brett recommends watching Black Mirror, a TV show about some of the ethical dilemmas that may come up as technology develops more and more. But don’t just watch it, he says, … go have a conversation about it with your family or friends afterward.
[35:35] “I was watching Star Trek Discovery when it first came out, and I specifically remember a scene where the main character is arguing with an AI. She’s reasoning with an AI to try to release her from imprisonment and they’re going back and forth about what moral standard is the most important.
It was this fascinating scene to think about… this is actually something we might have to deal with at some point in time. How do we encode moral and ethical frameworks into our technology? And then how do we actually reason with it and help it evolve?”
That will be the game… constantly evolving. Faster than the technology, hopefully…
Get ready for the Global Grand Challenges! They’ll be released soon… with roadmaps we can actually use to make a difference, and make better business decisions.
Challenge: Keep an eye out for the Road Maps!
Challenge: Join one of Brett’s workshops if you’re near San Fransisco.
Challenge: Log one of YOUR goals in the App! You can download it here: