Humans: Like machines changing their own micro-code?

While we may not be far from machines changing their own instruction sets, there is another scary and wonderful Midas touch moment in the world of living things: a technology that can edit specific sequences in human genome!

After recently listening to podcasts by Sam Harris discussing about genes with Siddhartha Mukherjee and about gene editing with Jennifer Doudna I wrote this blog on a train ride from Chennai back to Bangalore.

Basic Biology

If you zoom into a human body, you will find organs, and then tissues, and tissues made up of cells. Each cell has a nucleus. Every nucleus among other things, has coiled up chromosomes. Long double helical strands of DNA molecules make the chromosomes. Genes are sections of these DNA strands.

Like Yoga Sutra, DNA is a string of compact codes. Codes that are instructions about what protein molecules to assemble and how. These variable length compact codes are written using only four sacred letters: A, G, C and T (Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine nitrogenous base molecules). English words are composed with 26 alphabets but this Biochemical symphony of molecules is composed with just 4 letters!

Genes are sections in the long DNA strand

Astoundingly, Genes are functionally the same across nearly all living things. If you replace the gene in human cells with genes say from yeast, human cells would not know the difference and will start doing whatever infectiously jolly good things that yeast cells do!

Machine analogy

Machines understand a language of two numbers 0 and 1, technically a bit that can be in two states: on or off. High level languages are written in English and translated to machine code.

Next paragraph is a bit technical; skip it if you are not into computers.

Machine hardware (for example CPU) behaviors are usually fixed. Software programs produce myriad different functional behaviors based on fixed behaviors of hardware known as instruction sets and memory storage. How to “add” two numbers is in the base instruction set. Instruction sets are again lower level programs written in microcode. Microcode for how to add is usually fixed. In some machines microcode can be changed for extension of instruction sets or perhaps even change how to “add”!

We humans have gene based instruction sets to grow our own hardware! A group of cells execute one section of instructions and become brains and another group execute on a different section of instruction set and become livers.

Based on size and interconnected sophistication of hardware, particularly the brain, consciousness and sense of self seem to emerge. Piece of world, gaining a first person identity, perceives the broader world as if it is separate from it and suffers from the delusion of separateness.

Wow!

Technology that can heal and cut

CRISPER/Cas9 is a serendipitously found technology from studying how bacteria fight their own viral infections. This technology makes it possible to target a particular gene sequence and edit it — cut it out and replace it. You can do this for therapy on existing cells or you can play God and edit the genes of an ovum, sperm or fertilized egg and thereby altering the inherited gene line forever. In other words, we will soon have the power to “guide” further evolution of living things on earth.

Wow!

BRCA gene is known to cause breast cancer. Snip, snip at the genes. I don’t want my children to have as long a nose. Snip, snip at the genes. I don’t like mosquitoes being able to carry Malaria and Dengue; heck I don’t like pesky mosquitos at all and I don’t want them to have ability to breed. Snip, snip.

What other wonderful or scary outcomes can you imagine?

Truths too dangerous?

Life has evolved well so far on earth to make this blog possible. What a fortunate series of events to come to this! The best part is this: we as conscious beings exist at all to perceive the world that produced us, to magically find a first person foothold to gaze at the world and wonder…ask existential questions…and start tinkering with the process that produced us.

Would Artificial Super Intelligence reach “singularity” and with best of intentions, decide that global optimal state is where there is no conscious suffering at all and so kill all humans and sentient things? Would machines tinker with their own micro-code and overwrite and forget how to add and create a planet sized junk yard?

As much as we have come, we mostly act as babies and adolescents when dealing with cool sharp technological tools that can be used to cut or heal.

Could this be the reason why we don’t find other conscious aliens close by: they evolved and yet in their childhood or adolescence, tinkered with dangerous truths and snuffed their own light of consciousness out?

Here is to wishing that humans would grow up to adulthood and use these truths and tools right with wisdom, and thrive for the sake of the universe. An universe without conscious beings emerging to admire and wonder, is like a big project that is just wasteful and boring.

Crossed Jolarpet station…oh well, I might yet reach Bangalore before any “singularities” happen and post this blog.