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.
Moving from Sick-Care to Healthcare
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.”
Developing your Spidey-Sense
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: