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Andrew Hessel: Emerging Technologies Are Agnostic. Human Intention Is Key.

Today, we’re excited to have Andrew Hessel, CEO of Humane Genomics, talk to us about programming living things, on the ability of biotechnology to cause harm, and the similarities between Humans and Artificial Intelligence.

Wan Wei: Hello Andrew, can you tell us more about yourself and what you’re doing?

Andrew Hessel: I describe myself as a bio geek. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m trained in cellular, molecular, and microbial biology with a background in bacterial genetics. I basically spent my whole life working into digitised DNA. I was very fortunate that I was a grad student one day, went into pharma right after that and then really got trained by the pharmaceutical industry.

Since 2003, I’ve been pretty much able to do whatever I want, either independently or working with large organisations, governments, or companies but having a lot of control over what I’m doing. My overarching goal is that I want to program living things.

On Programming Living Things

Wan Wei: Programming living things is an interesting concept. What does it mean to programme living things and your motivation for wanting to do so?

Andrew Hessel: Well, programming computers is interesting, but computers are like idiot savants in that they do exactly what you tell them. At the end of the day, computers are always changing. There are many different languages, many different architectures. It’s a competitive space.

The thing that attracts me to programming life is that all living things are built on the same architecture. The low-level machinery of the cell is identical from bacteria to plant, to human beings. And it all runs on a single programming language, the standard genetic code.

So, I look at the planet in a holistic way. It is a living world. Everywhere you look, there are living organisms. The idea of being able to understand the organisms and start to design and build new organisms that will both preserve our planet and sustain humanity and life is really attractive to me.

Wan Wei: What’s the one thing about biotechnology that most people think they know but they actually do not know?

Andrew Hessel: I think the thing we think we know, is that we understand it [biotechnology]. Put it this way, we are just getting started in biotechnology.

The complexity of a single cell, even a bacterial cell, still escapes humanity. Often, we can’t even figure out the folding of a single protein. So, we are at the very earliest days of understanding the machinery of life on this planet. That being said, we’re learning fast. It has taken billions of years to get to this point but since we unlocked the structure of the genetic code in the 1950s, deciphered the standard genetic code language – built essentially the Rosetta in the late 1960s, and started doing engineering of DNA in the 1970s, we have gotten up to speed pretty quickly. Plus, we’ve learned how to read the genome of pretty much any organism. We are now building all sorts of computational tools for analysis at an ever-increasing rate. AI is becoming a big part of this because this is complex digital data, multidimensional.

We’re in the early days, but we’re getting up-to-speed quickly. And I think by the time we end the century – remember that we’re only 19% into this century – I think we’re going to have incredible capabilities when it comes to Programming Life.

Wan Wei: Do you think that our growing capabilities in programming living things will cause a sense of fear in people?

Andrew Hessel: I think in general, monkeying with living systems creates kind of an innate fear in many people. That’s not surprising. In fact, most technologies have generated fear in a small number of people going all the way back to the Luddites.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen fear directed at robots, and at computers that are networked. More recently, we’ve seen the fear around AI. Will it take our jobs? Will we become unnecessary? Certainly, when it comes to manipulating biology, people are concerned that we’ll make a horrible mistake, like a killer virus, or a superior race of superhumans.

Any technology generates a certain level of fear in a community. That being said, in practical terms, what I’ve also learned from working with the pharmaceutical industry, is that the drugs we made by genetic engineering were welcomed, whether it was for a diabetic that needed insulin, or for new cancer treatments.

Although there is always some concern and fear, I don’t worry about that. That’s not my area of focus. My area of focus is how do I use these technologies to do good things and address a need for humanity.

On the Ability of Biotechnology to Cause Harm

Wan Wei: While you might focus on how to use biotechnology to do good things and address a need, how thin is the line between doing good and doing evil? Aren’t you worried that someone will take biotechnology and use it to cause harm?

Andrew Hessel: Every technology has a dark side. Take a knife. You can cut your steak. You can do something nasty. In general, technologies are agnostic. It’s all about human intention.

Very few people wake up and go, “Hmm, I’m going to use these biotechnologies to go and kill everyone on the planet.” Frankly, the number of people in that space is virtually nil. Most people use tools for good. Sometimes there is an accident but that’s generally pretty rare, and we all learn from these experiences. Most people generally use tools to do good things, and most people are motivated either because they want to bring something good into the world or they want to start a business and earn money and employ people, et cetera.

On the Similarities between Humans and AI

Wan Wei: So, do you personally believe that let’s say in the context of AI, that AI could be programmed like a human being? Do you think that AI can be like a human and have the core set of empathy, a conscience, and a personality?

Andrew Hessel: Well, first of all, I don’t think it can be programmed for that, but I think it can learn. I think what we’re starting to see with the AI systems that we’re building is that they are becoming learning machines. And particularly now as we’re pitting AI versus AI and having them compete and train each other, I think we’re starting to see evidence that there are very few areas of activity where they can’t learn and start to produce phenomenal results at par with the best of human capabilities and in many cases, surpassing them.

So, I completely believe that we can build intelligences in other media besides biology and that they will be superior in many cases, because they will have very different architectures, not constrained in size, like our brains. Our heads can’t get much bigger. We’re limited by the data that we can absorb, essentially our sensory inputs, touch, taste, hearing, et cetera, and our processor, our brains, are made of meat. Our brains are limited in the number of computation cycles per second that they can do.

I think that the intelligences that we will create in computing hardware and learning algorithms would not have the same constraints. I think they will far surpass human capabilities.

Wan Wei: Yeah, I agree. OK. So how do you think AI can be used to complement biotechnology to do good to the world?

Andrew Hessel: I think AI is essential. If you look at the genetic code, it’s just A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s [bases that comprise DNA]. It’s like looking at 1’s and 0’s. You can’t interpret it as a human being. You need software tools to do biological design. You need software tools to do essentially data analysis because we just can’t hold that much information and variables in our mind.

So, I believe that the biotech industries of the future will largely and essentially be run by machines, and that AI will be a bigger and bigger component, not only of running those machines but of actually making the outputs of those machines.

Wan Wei: On the parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Andrew Hessel: I just want to say that Singapore is a really good place to explore these technologies. Singapore has very few natural resources because it’s small but it has an incredible resource in human capital, and it has become a centre for dealing with digital information. When you look at the world as I do, all living systems are just digital information.

I think Singapore has already started to make the investments not only in education and putting together resources like A*STAR and others to understand the biotechnology industry and make connections with leading groups around the world. As it gets up to speed in things like digital technologies and digital biotechnologies, synthetic biology, blockchain, finance, et cetera, I think it will become one of the centres for these next-generation biotechnology companies.

Wan Wei: Thank you very much for your time Andrew.
Andrew Hessel: You’re very welcome.