Worst-case Technological Scenarios for 2016: from A.I. Disaster to First DIY Pathogen

 

The futurist Ian Pearson, in his fascinating blog The More Accurate Guide to the Future, has recently directed my attention to a new report by Bloomberg Business. Just two days ago, Bloomberg Business published a wonderful short report that identifies ten of the worst-case scenarios for 2016. In order to write the report, Bloomberg’s staff has asked –

“…dozens of former and current diplomats, geopolitical strategists, security consultants, and economists to identify the possible worst-case scenarios, based on current global conflicts, that concern them most heading into 2016.”

I really love this approach, since currently many futurists – particularly the technology-oriented ones – are focusing mainly on all the good that will come to us soon enough. Ray Kurzweil and Tony Seba (in his book Clean Disruption) are forecasting a future with abundant energy; Peter Diamandis believes we are about to experience a new consumerism wave by “the rising billion” from the developing world; Aubrey De-Grey forecasts that we’ll uncover means to stop aging in the foreseeable future. And I tend to agree with them all, at least generally: humanity is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced and more efficient. If these upward trends will continue, we will experience an abundance of resources and a life quality that far surpasses that of our ancestors.

But what if it all goes wrong?

When analyzing the trends of the present, we often tend to ignore the potential catastrophes, the disasters, and the irregularities and ‘breaking points’ that could occur. Or rather, we acknowledge that such irregularities could happen, but we often attempt to focus on the good instead of the bad. If there’s one thing that human beings love, after all, it’s feeling in control – and unexpected events show us the truth about reality: that much of it is out of our hands.

Bloomberg is taking the opposite approach with the current report (more of a short article, really): they have collected ten of the worst-case scenarios that could still conceivably happen, and have tried to understand how they could come about, and what their consequences would be.

The scenarios range widely in the areas they cover, from Putin sidelining America, to Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and down to Trump winning the presidential elections in the United States. There’s even mention of climate change heating up, and the impact harsh winters and deadly summers would have on the world.

Strangely enough, the list includes only one scenario dealing with technologies: namely, banks being hit by a massive cyber-attack. In that aspect, I think Bloomberg are shining a light on a very large hole in geopolitical and social forecasting: the fact that technology-oriented futurists are almost never included in such discussions. Their ideas are usually far too bizarre and alienating for the silver-haired generals, retired diplomats and senior consultants who are involved in those discussions. And yet, technologies are a major driving force changing the world. How could we keep them aside?

 

Technological Worse-Case Scenarios

Here are a few of my own worse-case scenarios for 2016, revolving around technological breakthroughs. I’ve tried to stick to the present as much as possible, so there are no scientific breakthroughs in this list (it’s impossible to forecast those), and no “cure to aging” or “abundant energy” in 2016. That said, quite a lot of horrible stuff could happen with technologies. Such as –

  • Proliferation of 3D-printed firearms: a single proficient designer could come up with a new design for 3D-printed firearms that will reach efficiency level comparable to that of mass-manufactured weapons. The design will spread like wildfire through peer-to-peer services, and will lead to complete overhaul of the firearm registration protocols in many countries.
  • First pathogen created by CRISPR technology: biology enthusiasts are now using CRISPR technology – a genetic engineering method so efficient and powerful that ten years ago it would’ve been considered the stuff of science fiction. It’s incredibly easy – at least compared to the past – to genetically manipulate bacteria and viruses using this technology. My worst case scenario in this case is that one bright teenager with the right tools at his hands will create a new pathogen, release it to the environment and worse – brag about it online. Even if that pathogen will prove to be relatively harmless, the mass scare that will follow will stop research in genetic engineering laboratories around the world, and create panic about Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts.
  • A major, globe-spanning A. disaster: whether it’s due to hacking or to simple programming mistake, an important A.I. will malfunction. Maybe it will be one – or several – of the algorithms currently trading at stock markets, largely autonomously since they’re conducting a new deal every 740 nanoseconds. No human being can follow their deals on the spot. A previous disaster in that front has already led in 2012 to one algorithm operated by Knight Capital, purchasing stocks at inflated costs totaling $7 billion – in just 45 minutes. The stock market survived (even if Knight Capital’s stock did not), but what would happen if a few algorithms go out of order at the same time, or in response to one another? That could easily happen in 2016.
  • First implant virus: implants like cardiac pacemakers, or external implants like insulin pumps, can be hacked relatively easily. They do not pack much in the way of security, since they need to be as small and energy efficient as possible. In many cases they are also relying on wireless connection with the external environment. In my worst-case scenario for 2016, a terrorist would manage to hack a pacemaker and create a virus that would spread from one pacemaker to another by relying on wireless communication between the devices. Finally, at a certain date – maybe September 11? – the virus would disable all pacemakers at the same time, or make them send a burst of electricity through the patient’s heart, essentially sending them into a cardiac arrest.

 

This blog post is not meant to create panic or mass hysteria, but to highlight some of the worst-case scenarios in the technological arena. There are many other possible worst-case scenarios, and Ian Perarson details a few others in his blog post. My purpose in detailing these is simple: we can’t ignore such scenarios, or keep on living our lives with the assumption that “everything is gonna be alright”. We need to plan ahead and consider worst-case scenarios to be better prepared for the future.

Do you have ideas for your own technological worst-case scenarios for the year 2016? Write them down in the comments section!

 

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A Town in North Carolina has Banned Solar Energy – and You Can Thank Greenpeace for That

 

Recently, a town council in North Carolina rejected plans to open a solar farm in its area, after the town people expressed their fears about the new solar technology. As reported in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, retired science teacher Jane Mann, complained that no one could assure her that solar panels did not cause cancer. Her husband, Bobby Mann, chimed in and warned the council that solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun. Needless to say, neither of these arguments has any base in reality. The council, however, heard their warnings and voted against establishing a solar farm in the area. Later, the same town council also voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.

This is probably an isolated incident. In fact, the case has been covered widely in the last day, and the couple’s remarks have been met with worldwide ridicule, so some would say that it’s not likely to repeat itself. All the same, I believe similar arguments are bound to arise in other potential locations for solar farms. People will read about the claims associating between solar panels and deaths from cancer, and conspiracy theories will be created out of the blue. In some places, like that North Carolina town, fear will keep the new and clean technology from being deployed and used.

And if that happens, I can’t help but think that Greenpeace will be the ones to blame.

 

Greenpeace’s Feud with Science

A few years ago, I did a podcast episode about genetic engineering in plants. I wanted people to understand the science behind the technique, so I invited two distinguished professors from the academy who were experts in the field. I also invited a professor who was an expert in bioethics, to highlight the dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Finally, I asked a senior member in Greenpeace to come to the show and provide their take on GMOs. I still remember her words, and this is a direct quote –

“If you’re inviting doctors to the show, I’m not coming.”

To say that her words blew me away is an understatement. I used to donate monthly to Greenpeace under the presumption that they’re striving to change the world to the better – but how can they know in which area they should invest their political and public influence, if they’re not guided by science and by experts? And can’t they actually do more harm than good, by supporting the wrong causes?

Since that time, I started following Greenpeace’s agenda and actions and scrutinizing them closely. It was immediately clear that the ‘green’ organization was acting more on blind faith and belief in the healing and wholesome power of nature, than on scientific findings.

Oh, you want examples? Here’s the most famous one, that we experience up to this date: the campaign against Golden Rice in particular, and genetically modified organisms in general.

Greenpeace’s campaign against the Golden Rice, for one, has succeeded in delaying the deliverance of genetically modified rice to farmers in poor countries. “Golden Rice” is golden indeed since it had been genetically altered to produce a precursor of vitamin A, which is a vital nutrient for human consumption. Sadly, vitamin A is lacking in many areas in the developing world. In fact, half a million children who suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, and half of them die soon after. The Golden Rice has been ready for use since the beginning of the 21st century, and yet Greenpeace’s campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular has kept it off the market. At the same time, study after study show that GMOs are safe for eating, and in many cases are safer for the environment than ordinary crops.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence on the issue of GMOs does not matter much to Greenpeace, which keeps on fighting against GMOs and utilizing bad science, funding extremely shoddy studies, and scaremongering all over the world. No wonder that Stephen Tindale, ex-director of Greenpeace, has recently denounced anti-GM food campaigns of the kind Greenpeace is leading still. William Saletan, who has studied the issue extensively, published his results in Slate –

“…the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”

 

GMO-Labels.jpg
Greenpeace scaremongering. Image originally from the Genetic Literacy Project.

 

I don’t want this post to become a defense poster for GMOs. You can find solid reviews of the scientific evidence in some of the links above. What’s important to realize, though, is that Greenpeace have deliberately led a tactic that relies on people’s lack of scientific knowledge and their automatic fears of every new technology. This tactic is harmful in two ways: first, it can actually bring harm to environment since our choices do not rely on solid science but on scare tactics; second, it poisons people’s minds against science and scientific evidence, so that they are unwilling to look at new technologies in a calm and rational manner – even if those technologies are much safer for the environment than anything that came before them.

Which is exactly what happened at North Carolina this week, when the public rejected solar energy partly because of irrational and unfounded fears. Ironically, Greenpeace has put a lot of emphasis on solar energy as the preferred direction to solve the world’s energy problems, and their efforts are commendable. However, when they’ve spent the last few decades teaching people to be afraid of conspiracy theories by evil scientists, industry and government, why did they think people would stop there? Why shouldn’t people question the scientific base against solar panels’ safety, when Greenpeace has never bothered to encourage and promote scientific literacy and rational thinking among their followers?

Today, Greenpeace should feel proud of itself – it has primed people precisely for this kind of a response: a knee-jerk rejection of anything that is new and unfamiliar. With Greenpeace’s generous assistance, fear now overrides rational thinking.

 

PEAS3.jpg
I don’t like scare tactics, but when one of them is as beautiful as this one, I just can’t resist the urge to show it here. Image originally from the Inspiration Room, and the campaign was developed by BBDO Moscow.

 

Conclusion

For the last few decades, concerned scientists have watched with consternation as the environmentalist movement – with Greenpeace at its head – took an ugly turn and dived headlong into pseudo-science, mysticism and fear-mongering, while leaving solid science behind. This is particularly troubling since we need a strong environmentalist movement to help save the Earth, but it has to build its demands and strategies on a solid scientific base. Anything less than that, and the environmentalists could actually cause more harm to the environment – and to humanity – than the worst moneygrubbing industry leaders.

Even worse than that, in order to obtain public support for unscientific strategies, Greenpeace and other environmentalist movements have essentially “poisoned the wells” and have turned people’s minds against scientists and scientific studies. Instead of promoting rational thinking, they turned to scaremongering tactics that might actually backfire on them now, as they try to promote solar power technology that’s actually evidence-based.

How can we rectify this situation? The answer is simple: promote scientific literacy and rational thinking. I dare to hope that in the near future, Greenpeace will finally realize that science is not an enemy, but a way to better understand the world, and that its demands must be based on solid science. Anything less than that will lead to eventual harm to the planet.

 

Systematic Inventive Thinking, and Ways to Use Genetically Engineered Plants for Advertising

While visiting the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, I happened to take this photo of genetically modified pumpkins displaying a wide range of advertising materials, apparently for the corporate sponsors of zoo activities.

A Genetically Engineered Pumpkin Advertisement, from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. (Well, they're more of the ordinary painted/carved pumpkins, but it sounds way cooler when you think they might be engineered to produce these writings)
A Genetically Engineered Pumpkin Advertisement, from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island.
(Well, they’re more of the ordinary painted/carved pumpkins, but it sounds way cooler when you think they might be engineered to produce these writings)

Well, obviously the pumpkins aren’t actually genetically modified – they were just painted or sculpted by human artists – but in the rate genetic engineering is progressing, it’s quite possible that in a few decades we will have genetically modified fruits and vegetables that actually display readable advertisement on them as they grow up.

Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

I decided to take this chance and consider innovative ways in which future GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) could be used to promote and advertise products, ideas and corporates. In order to do that I utilized a fascinating systemic thinking system for innovation around which an entire consulting company called SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking) was founded.

The principles of the SIT system have been described in a 2003 article in Harvard Business Review. In short, the main idea is to limit your creativity instead of trying to stretch it sky-high. Why is that so important? Consider that you’re on a first date, and the girl (or boy) is leaning forward across the table and is asking you that ages-old question: “Tell me about yourself!”

If you’re like most human beings, you probably freeze in complete bewilderment, unsure where to begin or to end, and what you should actually talk about. You’re lost in the chaos of your own mind, sinking below the waves of many thoughts and impulses: should you tell her about your trip to India? Or maybe about your ambitions for the future? Or maybe she really wants to hear about your bar-mitzvah?

Coming up with creative and innovative ideas is similar to dating, at least in this view. Many executives tell their staff to find and implement creative ideas in their product, leaving them floundering and resentful. Many (too many) creativity workshops look that way too: with round tables of employees and executives who are told to be creative and just to “think up a new innovative product for the company!”

Such exercises rarely lead to good results. At best, the participants fall back on whatever ideas they’ve read or thought about before, and almost no new or innovative notions are being produced at those meetings.

Now consider the alternative dating scene: your date asks you a very simple question – “What did you eat this morning?” In this case, the answer is clear. You have a starting point that is safe and sound, and while admittedly it is not very interesting, the conversation and the jokes can start flowing from that point onwards. It works the same way with creativity: by putting constraints on your thinking process in a systematic fashion, you’re actually capable of analyzing the situation in an orderly way, and develop each innovative case fully at a time.

The SIT method places constraints over the innovation process by forcing the thinkers to consider innovative changes to the current product in only five different directions: subtraction, multiplication, division, task unification, and attribute dependency. Let’s go over each one to think up innovative ways GE plants could be used for advertisement.

SIT Thinking Tools

Subtraction

Subtraction means that instead of our natural tendency to add features to an existing product, we remove existing features, particularly the kind that seem vital and necessary.

How does this thinking tool relate to GMO? Well, what would happen if we were to engineer a fruit without its skin or outer covering? The skin of the fruit obviously serves to protect the soft and squishy interior, so it’s definitely an important part of the product. However, maybe we could make the skin thinner and translucent, so that the consumer would see what they’re getting inside the fruit: they’ll see whether the banana has dark stains on its edible part, and if the tomato is rotten or has worms. That would certainly be an interesting advertisement maneuver: “We don’t have anything to hide!”

Multiplication

By applying the multiplication thinking tool, we multiply – add more copies of – certain existing components of the product, but then alter them in a significant way. Gillette’s double-bladed razor is a well-known example: they added an extra blade, and then found a different use for it on the other side of the razor.

How about, then, that we engineer the fruit to contain more seeds – but ones that are actually viable, and grow into some interesting and different kinds of fruit? The fruit’s manufacturer could bring the fruit to market as a tool for teaching children about the natural world, and even create a competition to find that “one golden seed” hiding in every one fruit out of a hundred, and out of which a truly extraordinary fruit will grow.

Division

The division tool makes us divide the product into its separate components – and then recombine them in some new way. In the case of genetically modified fruit, we can roughly separate the ‘product’ into seeds, edible flesh, skin and a stem. How can we mix the three to make the final product more valuable for advertisers? Here’s an idea: make the seeds grow on the surface of the fruit, but make them as small as speckles, adding a shine to the fruit. Or maybe make the stem go through the entire fruit, like a skewer, and promote the fruit as one that can be easily roasted over a grill.

Task Unification

Which two tasks can be unified into a single component of the fruit? This one is easy: make the stem tasty, so that it can be eaten as a snack next to the fleshy fruit. One can also imagine fruits that contain therapeutic materials, so that eating them serves a double purpose: get thin, and get healthy.

Attribute Dependency Change

The components and attributes of every product depend, in part, on its environment. Shoes for girls, for example, often come in pink (attribute: color). Watermelons are often sold in summertime, which is another relation between an attribute (time of sale) and the product.

Using this thinking tool, we can really go wild. If we only focus on color as an attribute, we can engineer fruit that changes its color visibly when it’s infected by certain bacteria, or that its color can tell when the fruit was picked up from the field, assuring the consumer that they’re getting fresh produce. And this is just the beginning, since we can also play with the smell, touch, and even weight and size of the fruit. So many opportunities here!

Conclusion

You may or may not like the ideas I gave for genetic engineering of plants. Regardless, this post was primarily an exercise in innovative thinking meant to provide a sneak peek at a wonderful methodology for innovation. You are warmly invited to suggest more ideas for genetic engineering of plants in the comments section, using the SIT methodology as a guide. And of course, you can use the principles of the SIT Methodology to innovate your own ideas for a product, service or company.

I’m sure you’ll make good use of the methodology, and will discover that innovating under constraints is as useful as it is fun.

Enjoy!

First Human Undergoes a Genetic Engineering Treatment to Reverse Aging

Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.

BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.

I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.

I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. Image originally from BioViva.

Are They for Real?

After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?

While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.

The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.

That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.

“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.

The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.

In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”

And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?

“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”

The Future of Aging

So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.

“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”

This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.

Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”

This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.

Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”

As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”

Conclusion

It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.

The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”

Smarter, stronger, faster… and younger?

Sign me in.

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Featured image at top of article is originally from Flickr user Arileu 

Gene-edited Micro-Pigs about to become Pets

Can you recognize where the following paragraph is from?

Hammond was flamboyant, a born showman, and… had an elephant that he carried around with him in a little cage. The elephant was nine inches high and a foot long, and perfectly formed, except his tusks were stunted. Hammond took the elephant with him to fund-raising meetings. Gennaro usually carried it into the room, the cage covered with a little blanket, like a tea cozy, and Hammond would give his usual speech about the prospects for developing what he called “consumer biologicals.” Then, at the dramatic moment, Hammond would whip away the blanket to reveal the elephant. And he would ask for money.

 

The story of Hammond and his miniature elephant (supposedly genetically engineered) appears in the opening pages of the book Jurassic Park. Ever since I read Jurassic Park in my teens, this is the paragraph that got stuck in my mind. After all, ravenous dinosaurs eating people is neat and everything, but having a tiny elephant living in your house, and showing it to your friends every time they drop by? Now that’s priceless – and definitely an idea I could relate to.

As it turns out, this dream is actually coming to fruition nowadays, with a Chinese prestigious institute announcing its intention to sell genetically engineered micro-pigs. Which, I guess, are a good substitute for a micro-elephant… at least for now.

The micro-pigs in question were engineered in a way that disabled their normal production of growth hormones, leading to the creation of a ‘dwarf’ pig. Their original purpose was to be used in medical studies of dwarfism and other metabolic disorders, since pigs are often used as models for human diseases. However, when they were revealed to the public at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China one week ago, they stole the show.

“We had a bigger crowd than anyone,” said Lars Bolund, who took part in the pigengeering project, in an interview to Scientific American. “People were attached to them. Everyone wanted to hold them.”

Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog
Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

The enthusiasm should not really have been surprising. There’s been a pig-pet craze for the past few decades, which scrupulous breeders have taken advantage of by selling “teacup pigs” – tiny piglets which were supposed to remain small through adulthood. As it turned out, many such piglets grew to weigh 100 – 150 pounds, forcing their owners to give the massive beasts up.

The micro-pigs should be relatively safe to purchase, and quite simply cannot reach a weigh of more than 15 kilograms, or more than the size of a medium-sized dog. That’s in their DNA – the genetic program that instructs their body on its final shape and size. The BGI Chinese institute is planning to sell them at $1,600 – and I won’t be surprised if the first batch will be snatched up within days by the rich and the famous who will be looking for new ways to demonstrate their… well, richness and fame.

But the really interesting question for me is: what will be the next genetically-engineered animal to make it to households as pet?

Dragon to Newt

The first (and possibly easiest to perform) kind of genetic engineering for household pets will be downsizing. As the BGI institute researchers have shown, you just need to disable the production of growth hormones in the animal to do that – a relatively easy task. Which animals will be downsized, then?

Endangered or threatened species will probably not be on the list, since the researchers need a mature female to give birth to the engineered baby-animal. Also, many large mammals have an extremely long pregnancies, which might make the venture unprofitable. So – I’m probably not going to enjoy my micro-elephant or micro-rhinoceros anytime soon.

If I had to bet on the animal of choice, my money would probably be on micro-crocodiles. The Nile crocodile is nowhere near endangered, and the female lays an average of fifty eggs, which hatch in three months. Baby crocodiles are already cute enough that some people will adopt them, with the obvious result of having to face a full-blown crocodile in the bathroom two years later. But what if they’re engineered to never grow any larger? I would probably chip in for a pet like that. A miniature horse or stag – if you just bring them down to the size of a house cat – wouldn’t hurt either.

Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets? Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest - user Jessica Curzon
Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets?
Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest – user Jessica Curzon

Glow in the Dark

“Glow in the dark animals” are already quite common in labs around the world. They’re being used for medical studies, but somehow have never found their way to the consumer market. The answer has a lot to do with the psychology of the consumer, but I would wager a guess that we just don’t like glow-in-the-dark cats or dogs. And why should we? The glow is mostly revealed only under UV light, and in any case – it would just make the animals frightening to behold.

The only case in which glowing animals became a success was with aquarium fish (GloFish) that were the recipients of a jellyfish gene causing them to slow in the dark. Those fish are quite beautiful, but they grow only in the extremely secure and limited environment of the fish tank. Not really interesting, to be honest.

GloFish as our "glow in the dark" pets. Image originally from the GloFish site
GloFish as our “glow in the dark” pets. Image originally from the GloFish site

Cats Just Want to have Fun

Ragdoll cats are known as the most gentle and non-aggressive of all cats. They were bred specifically to be that way, and are a hit among adults and children who love the way cats look – but not the scars they leave on the skin.

Since we are beginning to identify genes that influence behavior and aggression in animals, why not use genetic engineering to bring some really ferocious animals to our houses?

I know that I wrote earlier against the engineering of endangered animals, but just consider: wouldn’t you like a full-sized tiger that is – quite literally – gentler than a kitten? Or how about a fun-loving shark in the swimming pool?

While these are probably extreme examples (you still have to feed these animals with tons of raw meat!), I think we can agree that smaller animals, like a people-loving raccoon, or a truly affectionate snake that likes to cuddle, could be a real hit.

Can We Stop GE-Pets?

By now you’re probably asking yourself if we can stop the technology from coming to fruition and delivering GE-pets to our doorsteps. It is extremely unlikely that the process will stop in any way, because of several reasons –

  • Globalization: if GE-pets are banned in one country, they’ll be engineered in another country like China. When their safety is demonstrated over time, they’ll spread around;
  • Powerful and cheap GE techniques: novel genetic engineering techniques are becoming rapidly cheaper and more powerful, which means that many private companies will soon start dabbling with synthetic biology. Even the venerable Bill Gates recently mentioned that if he were a kid today – he would be hacking biology. Governments will find it increasingly more difficult to stop these new companies from delivering their products to the market.
  • Eventual spread: let’s say you own a micro-pig, and your friend raises her own micro-pig. You like her, she likes you, and your micro-pigs like each other. What do you think will happen next? You could enjoy a litter of micro-pigs within less than a year, which you will give to your neighbors, whether they like them or not. Of course, most GE-pets will also be engineered to be sterile (companies have to protect their business investment, after all), but others will be fertile, and you can be sure that they’ll breed and spread throughout the land.

Conclusion

We are now at the beginning of a fascinating and exciting age: the age of synthetic biology, when animals could be molded according to our wishes. Obviously, we gain an enormous power over nature that way – but is it any different from raising animals in farms and stables? I’m not so sure. I also don’t see much of a danger to bio-diversity in the short-term, since the animals we will engineer for our needs will be hard-pressed to survive in nature (good luck to that micro-crocodile, or cuddling snake when they have to survive outside the house).

I’ll be waiting for my micro-crocodile to arrive sometime in this decade or the next.

And what would you kids like to get for Christmas?