This week, CSER advisor George Church has co-authored two papers on gene drive technologies, renewing interest in their risks and benefits. First proposed ten years ago, gene drive technology stimulates a gene to be preferentially inherited so that it can spread through the population.
Although gene drives are not yet able to be implemented, they are coming closer to reality. In their technical report, Esvelt, Smidler, Catteruccia and Church report that the technology is being accelerated by CRISPR-Cas9, which allows us to edit genomes. Church reports that Esvelt is already applying the CRISPR-generated gene drive experiments in yeast, nematodes, and mosquitoes. They state that gene drives could be used to assist in the eradication of insect-borne diseases, for example, reducing mosquito populations to prevent them from transmitting malaria.
However, gene drives might also carry substantial risk. In their editorial, Church and nine other scientists report that gene drives may pose substantial risks to wild organisms, crops and lifestock. They argue that although US security policies have broad concerns, they are narrow in the scope of their oversight, focusing on weapons, pathogens and toxins. They argue for defining risk in terms of the ability of biotechnologies to cause harm to humans and other species of interest.
For emerging technologies that affect the global commons, concepts and applications should be published in advance of construction, testing, and release. This lead time enables public discussion of environmental and security concerns, research into areas of uncertainty, and development and testing of safety features. It allows adaptation of regulations and conventions in light of emerging information on benefits, risks, and policy gaps. Most important, in the case of gene drives, lead time will allow for broadly inclusive and well informed public discussion to determine when and how gene driver should be used.
Professor Tim Palmer has been newly added to CSER’s advisory board. Palmer is Royal Society Anniversary Research Professor at the University of Oxford, is a Senior Scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts and was President of the Royal Meteorological Society from 2011-12. This year, he was awarded the Dirac Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for his work on climate models. He has performed extensive research on forecast uncertainty, the propagation of errors, and the relative merit of ensemble and deterministic forecasting.
Interestingly, the first Dirac Medal from the Institute of Physics was awarded to another CSER advisor, Professor Stephen Hawking, in 1987.
Professor David Spiegelhalter was knighted in the queens birthday ceremony last weekend. Known to the public as Professor Risk, Spiegelhalter was honoured for his services to statistics.
Sir David has been the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge since October 2007, and is an advisor to the Cambridge Centre for Study of Existential Risk. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2005 and awarded an OBE in 2006 for services to medical statistics.
“Statistics is not very sexy to be honest, so I’m very honoured and gratified that somebody thinks statistics is worth working on, so I’m very pleased for myself and the field”, he said.
There were also knighthoods for David Greenaway and David Eastwood, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, psychologist Cary Cooper, historian Thomas Devine and theoretical physicist Thomas Bannerman.
“We’re asking the UK public to vote for which of the six areas should have top priority, and be the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014,” says Martin Rees, who is leading the 2014 Longitude Prize. The Longitude Prize is a £10 million science and technology prize developed with Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board.
Last week, CSER founder Jaan Tallinn spoke at the launch of the Future of Life Institute, for which he is one of five founding members. FLi stands to become an important voice for the reduction of existential risk – its mission is “To catalyze and support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”
Tallin joined a panel discussion with:
Their wide-ranging discussion covered personal genetics, artificial intelligence and how scientists can advocate for safe technological progress.
CSER Chair Professor Partha Dasgupta, in collaboration with Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Atmospheric Sciences, UCSD) and Archbishop Roland Minnerath, convened a high-level workshop on global sustainability from the 2nd-6th of May in the Vatican, Italy.
The 5 day workshop addressed crucial concerns over the relationship between human technological progress, the degradation of natural capital, and economic growth. It brought together luminaries from across a range of fields united by environmental concerns – these included climate scientist and policy advisor Hans Schellnhuber, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, international law expert Edith Brown Weiss, and CSER cofounder Lord Martin Rees.
“Our idea is not to catalogue environmental problems. We propose instead to view Humanity’s interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs – Food, Health, and Energy – and ask our respective Academies to work together to invite experts from the natural and the social sciences to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature’s ability to meet them.”
CSER advisors Max Tegmark, Stuart Russell, Stephen Hawking join with Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek to highlight the very plausible risks that may lie ahead in the development of artificial intelligence.
Transcending Complacency on Superintelligence Machines