Craig Venter is a geneticist who has been working on engineering new organisms and recently spoke at TED. He made news (as every news story you see about him over the past couple days is happy to point out) in 2001 for sequencing his own genome. His current project is in creating a single-celled organism that eats CO2 as fuel. This notion of creating an artificial life form is very hot these days. I’ve seen a number of estimates that say within 3-5 years we will have our first artificial life form. Craig says 1-2 years.
He makes a claim that is fairly Earth-shattering:
“We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy. We think we will have fourth-generation fuels in about 18 months, with CO2 as the fuel stock.”
If he is right, this could mean the end of the peak oil problem. So what about ethical concerns? Like all researchers in this area, he takes the good-human worldview:
“Fortunately, there’s not that many people on this planet wanting to do harm with these tools. Very few biological agents that we work with … could be weaponized. But it is an important issue. Every new technology has the ability to be abused.” [source]
I am, admittedly, cynical. I personally believe that if a technology can be weaponized, not only will it be, but the government is probably already funding it. And also, let’s be honest, it only takes one person wanting to do harm with this technology to be successful for it to be a serious problem. He also points out that only two countries had programs for creating designer viruses and those are supposedly discontinued (the US and the former Soviet Union). Discontinued? Riiight.
Venter also said he performed a large bioethical study involving many religious groups and no one found anything in their “law books” to prohibit the creation of artificial life forms. I take a very dim view of so-called bioethicists and anyone referring to bioethics with authority. They are often-times just so much smoke in the wind, and who are they to say something is ethical or not? I deny their authority. I have never heard the output of any bioethical unit (the drones calling themselves bioethicists) that has struck me as particularly useful or unbiased. They are always reported in the media as “So-and-so, an expert in bioethics, says it’s ok to do X.” Umm, no. I think what I find lacking is the attention by bioethicists to the catastrophic cost of abuse. If you think I’m over-reacting, I have two words for you: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As cynical as I am, I still can’t believe humans have stockpiled as many nuclear weapons as we have. It is madness.
I also won’t deny that this stuff is seriously cool. One way or another, it will change the world.