As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews. To find out when the book goes on sale subscribe to our newsletter here.
Eleonore Pauwels is the director of Science Innovation with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She studies the intersection of genomics, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and intellectual property. As biological technologies become digitized, they will face the same security issues as information technologies.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Technology is changing at an exponential pace that is hard for most of us to understand. How should governments prepare to deal with the new life sciences technologies that evolve so quickly that regulatory pathways haven’t yet been defined?
ELEONOR PAUWELS: The challenge is how do we train people to anticipate the implications of new technologies.
Right now, the risk between Silicon Valley and [Washington] D.C., is the speed of entrepreneurship. Business models that worked in IT or digital are very quickly being transferred to biology. When things move as fast as they are moving, it’s difficult to anticipate the implications. We’re not very good at that.
Most of the time, the federal workforce is playing catch up with what is happening in Silicon Valley, the Boston corridor, and other places.
It’s impossible for federal workers to understand what technologies are real or hype. It’s hard to understand upstream and downstream, near-term and longer-term implications. There also is the problem of having a well-trained workforce able to anticipate new technologies and their convergence.
For example, very few people understand the implications of using gene drives in a specific ecosystem, region, or neighborhood. That kind of biological engineering pushes the limits of what government can do. It’s especially a challenge when you don’t have a workforce capable of thinking through the effects of a technology like that. At the same time, it’s difficult to [train] technology entrepreneurs to anticipate the regulatory and workforce implications of their technologies.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Could you give an example of a technology that is misunderstood?
ELEONOR PAUWELS: Artificial Intelligence. Most of what we hear right now is about the transformative effects of AI and how it will change every industry. The truth is we still don’t really know how it’s going to work.
The same with CRISPR and human genome editing. The hype tells you it’s easy and cheap but when you talk to a practitioner, the story is different. It will take years to figure it out in the lab. It will take even longer to get it to patients.
AI and CRISPR will impact many different systems and change the ways we operate. They will change how we deal with disease. But you need researchers and entrepreneurs speaking with the regulatory agencies to anticipate the larger implications.
KARL SCHMIEDER: When it comes to the misuse of biotechnology, what are the things you worry about?
ELEONOR PAUWELS: There is still a problem around how we assess and distribute the benefits of innovations. The recent CRISPR patent battle is an example. How did we conclude that only a few companies can use CRISPR and gain a competitive advantage?
The way the patent battle played out, a group of companies becomes less competitive because they cannot afford CRISPR. Instead, the technology could have become an open source, enabling technology that would unleash innovation.
I’m concerned about the convergence of genomics and AI. It’s hard to tell where the data is originating, what the protocols are for using, owning and storing the data, and what the ownership models are. Creating an ecosystem where individuals could benefit from sharing their genomics data is a lot different than one where only a few investors and companies benefit from publicly available data.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Will we need to think about biosecurity in the same way we think about cybersecurity?
ELEONOR PAUWELS: Cybersecurity is going mainstream as an enabling technology because data is part of everything we do. We need to help people understand the information technology systems we’re using, where weakness exist, and how checkpoints should be incorporated into the system.
Biology is moving in the same direction as IT. Genomics data will face the same data security challenges as information technologies. It’s easy to imagine biotech tools becoming enabling technologies the same way systems did in IT.
The analogies between the two fields are interesting but it becomes even more interesting when you start using DNA to store data. Large parts of society are not ready for this. Some people will understand the value of cybersecurity, genomics and AI. They will know how to derive value in different ways. The problem is you can still have weak points that could be entries for attacks. Threats can come from anywhere.
Imagine the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes the Bio Internet of Things. To take it a step further, you’re using living sensors and storing data with DNA. You use genomic sequencing for tracking and biology becomes pervasive in the way the IOT is predicted to be. How do you organize a governance system for that?