Over 15 rich years of public forecasting, Amy Webb has become one of the most prominent futurists around.
Webb has co-written a new book, “The Genesis Machine,” with pioneering geneticist Andrew Hessel that talks about the possibilities and pitfalls of synthetic biology — the broad idea that science will allow us to change everything from how we create medicines to food to human beings. (Designer babies are, she says, the wrong way to think about it.)
As 2022 kicks off with ever-increasing levels of innovation — and plenty of hype and fear to go with it — The Washington Post chatted with Webb about topics as varied as lab-created meats, CRISPR gene editing, 5G and the future of reproduction. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Zeitchik: Let’s start with the themes of your new book. You’re very bullish on the many opportunities that science affords us in procreation. What do you see as some of them?
Webb: What we’re talking about here is a technology that unlocks our ability to be more selective and to intentionally design life. Maybe that means one person using their own genetic material to bring an embryo to term; maybe it unlocks opportunities to select traits from more than two parents. We don’t know how it will look, but I believe the possibilities can be very good. What all of this means is optionality.
S.Z.: Reading your book it feels like you have an almost philosophical belief that people should overhaul what they think about how humans are created. If synthetic biology can deliver on some of these promises — if it removes any age restriction on egg fertilization, say, or if embryos can be gestated outside a human body — what do these changes do to us as a society? Do they alter it fundamentally?
A.W.: The thing is we never stopped and asked how we got to this point. Until now a baby was a man and a woman and having the structures to be in place for that to happen. And now synthetic biology is giving us other options. Forty years into the future, I think it may be the case that there are many parents to one child, or that a 70-year-old and their 60-year old spouse decide to have a baby. Why would we close ourselves off to those possibilities?
S.Z.: There are people who say CRISPR and what awaits beyond is a bridge too far, that it allows a kind of manipulation at social or even governmental levels. You don’t much agree with them.
A.W.: [Laughs] All roads on this path lead to eugenics. The fears that it’s going to be “Gattaca” — nations can intentionally design populations. Look, we need to acknowledge the geopolitical advantages that some countries might try for by elevating their population’s intelligence and physical traits. But the thought of making pregnancy easier for people who really want to become parents is something we should be embracing. Right now, creating a child relies on chance and serendipity, or enough money for a lot of IVF cycles. It’s shockingly difficult in the year 2022 to make a baby. It shouldn’t be that way.
S.Z.: Synthetic biology doesn’t have to apply just to humans, of course. How much promise do you hold out for it changing animals, plants — the food supply?
A.W.: This is something I feel very strongly about when people come out and talk about how to support food suppliers if there’s economic uncertainty or after a major climate disaster. The solutions should be not to subsidize what has always been done. We need to figure out new ways to scale production, whether that is indoor plant factories or using genetic engineering to create plants or creating grains that can withstand extreme heat. And then the animals. There is so much instability in the market because of our incredible reliance on meat. And I think the ideal — I think the plausible outcome, really — is how do we produce meat in a different way.
S.Z.: Even if we could do this affordably at scale, though — and there are a lot of scientists who say we can’t — there are some pretty entrenched interests that would push back. Producers, for starters.
A.W.: I agree and don’t know that we’ll be able to do some of this within a generation. But we need to go in that direction. We don’t have much choice.
S.Z: It reminds me a little of the pharmaceutical industry, in terms of the need to change versus the ability to do so.
A.W.: At the moment if someone came up with a universal flu vaccine that was mRNA-based, it would be problematic for a whole bunch of companies that have made their money on the current model, from medical-records firms to doctors’ offices to CVS — a whole business ecosystem. But we should still be doing it. Some of synthetic biology will cause future problems for today’s business models. The model will have to adapt, just as we will. That will be a challenge too, by the way.
S.Z.: Yes, it’s always interesting how many of us can struggle picturing these changes — like when you describe about food or medicine. It wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t have in vitro fertilization, or antibiotics. Yet we struggle with imagining how life will look different. Our minds have an almost chemical inability to accept change going forward compared to going backward.
A.W.: I think that’s true. I also think it has to do with the pace of change in the last few years. The technology is evolving much faster than society can; the technology is evolving much faster than our ability to confront our cherished beliefs. People understand how to facilitate the values they know. They don’t realize those values themselves are created, are synthetic and innovative. So we could innovate and create new ones.
S.Z.: This penchant for the status quo can also often be led by policymakers and thought leaders.
A.W.: Completely. The fact that the U.S. does not view food supply as an issue of national strategic importance is a big one here, to come back to that. We are drastically underinvested as a country in investigating how we are going to produce food in a world of climate change. And we’re running out of time. It’s so shortsighted of us not to be investing in these spaces. I mean, we lost our minds at the start of the pandemic when we couldn’t have our Raisin Bran. Imagine that on a much much wider, much, much deeper scale.
S.Z.: Let’s shift to something that is on people’s minds pretty imminently: 5G. We’re about to get it rolled out, finally, and I think many consumers wonder what it will really mean. What’s the biggest immediate impact in your view?
A.W.: The biggest immediate impact I think isn’t going to happen here. It will happen in China. 5G is going to bring an incomprehensible number of people online all at the same time. And suddenly that makes China an extremely attractive market for goods and services.
S.Z.: Which could be — maybe? — good for Americans worried about the trade deficit? We become not just consumers of what they produce but producers of what they consume?
A.W.: If we undo decades of offshore manufacturing and lean into our role as producers, yes. That could take a long time. What it means now to have all these consumers is that there’s suddenly a lot less supply for us. And that means higher prices.
S.Z.: Hmm, any positive effects?
A.W.: A great enhancement of telehealth. More drone deliveries. A few others.
S.Z.: Speaking of things we’ve been hearing about a lot lately, the metaverse. Like 5G used to be, it’s either going to change everything or nothing, depending on the person speaking, or the day.
A.W.: Most of what happens with the metaverse sounds super-buzzy and overhyped. The future of the metaverse, for example, is not avatars.
A.W.: I don’t think so. I think it’s digital twins. The idea of getting 3-D renderings of all kinds of spaces. Think of what it will mean just for homes, what we can know about how they’re built, or if there’s asbestos. That’s just one example. It’s melding the physical and the digital. It doesn’t have to be cartoons.
S.Z.: A corollary to the metaverse talk is that the Internet will be more embodied — less about the phone we hold outside of ourselves and more something we wear and is integrated with us. You’ve been at the fore of saying we’re on the cusp of a grand smartphone decline. Do you still believe that?
A.W.: Yes. We said in the 2018 Report that smartphones would go away by 2031, and I still believe that. Nothing’s changed. There will be fewer things done by one device like we have now. It will be close to us and worn all over us.
S.Z.: That seems like just a small form-factor change but I think it actually could feel pretty major.
A.W.: Very major. Just think of eyesight. Right now, there’s so much eyestrain when we look at a screen. This is going to get rid of so much of that.
S.Z.: OK, your biggest fear for the coming year.
A.W.: How blockchain and NFTs and decentralization will lead to new forms of hacktivism. I worry it becomes a serious problem.
S.Z.: Finally, I have to ask. You wrote a book and gave a viral Ted Talk about how you met your husband by building an algorithm. Do you think that kind of approach is going to accelerate even further and take us well beyond the kind of soft filtering that happens presently on dating apps? Are we going to be finding partners primarily by AI?
A.W.: Fortunately, I haven’t had to go back to that well. [Laughs.] But I look at one of the best recommendation engines out there, and it’s TikTok. People love consuming content that it recommends. Why wouldn’t you use something like that for dating too?