THE FOG OF THE FUTURE
The 2020s are already an astonishing decade of technological innovation. On December 14, 2022, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced they had achieved nuclear fusion. Instead of splitting atoms (fission) to generate nuclear power, atoms are forced together (fusion). This was a critical breakthrough, because for a short time, more energy was generated by the fusion technology than had been put in, obviously a crucial milestone. For half a century, science had been working toward this major breakthrough; it could take another half century to turn this single demonstration into a technology that will be applicable globally, but because nuclear fusion generates no carbon dioxide or any nuclear waste, it would be an ideal technology for reducing carbon emissions.
That's just one example. Just three months earlier, on September 13, 2022, in the absence of eggs, sperm, and a womb, two independent teams of scientists were able to create mouse embryos. While they were not quite complete embryos—they stopped developing at about eight and a half days instead of the normal twenty—these lab-grown specimens were on track to becoming normal embryos.
The scientists began with stem cells. In a living animal these cells begin life with no cellular identity—they aren't yet liver cells, blood cells, or skin cells. But then they transform into specialized cells and populate our bodies with unique tissues and organs.
That's the normal version of embryonic development. But the scientists on these two teams took this stem cell versatility in a whole new direction: they were able to coax a group of mouse stem cells to begin to develop an embryo simply by putting the cells in a set of spinning glass vials inside an incubator, thus creating an artificial womb designed to mimic the circulation of blood and nutrients in the uterus.
While the percentage of normally formed embryos was small, just one-half of 1 percent, still they were viable, with beating hearts, normally shaped brains (including the beginnings of defined brain regions), and intestines—confirmation that the programming of the embryo is internal to the stem cells themselves. The uterus is a habitat, not the controller. Of all the quotes in response to these experiments, Case Western Reserve University biologist Paul Tesar's "It's a pretty wild and remarkable time" seems the most appropriate.
One of the teams argued that this breakthrough opens up a new approach to studying embryonic development: it happens right there, before your eyes, in transparent glassware. It will be possible to see exactly when and where embryonic development goes wrong. With some tinkering, it should one day be possible to carry the embryos to term. A mature mouse embryo created from stem cells would be a dramatic scientific achievement.
Immediately after the release of the scientific paper, there were thoughts (doubts? fears?) about doing the same thing with humans, which would provide unparalleled insights into early fetal development.
And a third example: On October 12, 2022, an article was published in the journal Neuron that did indeed involve neurons—nerve cells—from both mice and humans (the human neurons were cultured from stem cells, the mouse version from mouse brains). These neurons, hundreds of thousands of them, were hooked up to a set of electrodes, facilitating electrical communication among them. Amazingly this half-biology, half-technology setup (dubbed Dishbrain) could be programmed to play a lab version of the old video game Pong. The neurons sped up the whole circuit and played Pong really well. The setup also revealed that human neurons were better at the game than mouse neurons. The research was a step forward in combining an artificial brain with a real one.
Tech Never Stands Alone
These are just some recent examples of how technology is accelerating the possibilities of real-world application—and complications. There isn't a topic in this book that isn't both moving forward dramatically while at the same time creating ethical and equity issues.
For example, on November 26, 2018, the now disgraced Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui used CRISPR gene-editing technologies to edit the genomes of twins while they were still in the womb. Even though he was jailed and fined for it, can we be certain that someone else won't try to use human stem cells to develop a human embryo?
It's impossible to predict which of these examples of pioneering science will take off, where they might go, or how far. In mid-2021, stocks of Beyond Meat, the giant producer of plant-based meat, were trading at US$150. It looked like a dramatic step forward for plant-based products and the green values associated with them. One year later, the stock had dropped by US$75. It had looked like a winner—and then it wasn't. And who knows? Since then that market has quietly become crowded.
But one thing is for certain: there will be technologies with enormous impact. One of the most pressing issues facing these new technologies will be "Who benefits?"