David Brin, Bruce Sterling & Daniel Suarez – Manual for Civilization Lists

Posted on September 29th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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IMG_8330-LPhoto by Particia Chang

Our brickstarter drive for The Interval at Long Now ends October 1, 02014. Please consider a donation today to support completing The Interval, the home of the Manual for Civilization.

The Manual for Civilization is a crowd-curated collection of the 3500 books you would most want to sustain or rebuild civilization. It is also the library at The Interval, with about 1000 books on shelves floor-to-ceiling throughout the space. We are about a third of the way done with compiling the list and acquiring selected the titles.

We have a set of four categories to guide selections:

  • Cultural Canon: Great works of literature, nonfiction, poetry, philosophy, etc
  • Mechanics of Civilization: Technical knowledge, to build and understand things
  • Rigorous Science Fiction: Speculative stories about potential futures
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

Our list comes from suggestions by Interval donors, Long Now members, and some specially-invited guests with particular expertise. All the book lists we’ve published so far are shown here including lists from Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Maria Popova, and Neal Stephenson. Interval donors will be the first to get the full list when it is complete.

Today we add selections from science fiction authors Bruce SterlingDavid Brin, and Daniel Suarez. All three are known for using contemporary science and technology as a starting point from which to speculate on the future. And that type of practice is exactly why Science Fiction is one of our core categories.

David Brin is a scientist, futurist and author who has won science fiction’s highest honors including the Locus, Campbell, Nebula, and Hugo awards. His 01991 book Earth is filled with predictions for our technological future, many of which have already come true. He has served on numerous advisory committees for his scientific expertise.

David BrinDavid Brin (photo by Cheryl Brigham)

David Brin’s list

Bruce Sterling‘s first novel was published in 01977. In 01985 he edited Mirrorshades the defining Cyberpunk anthology, and went on to win two Hugos and a Campbell award for his science fiction. His non-fiction writing including his long-running column for Wired are also influential. He spoke for Long Now in 02004.

Bruce Sterling (Photo by Heisenberg Media)Bruce Sterling (photo by Heisenberg Media)

Bruce Sterling’s list

Daniel Suarez made a huge stir with his 02006 self-published debut novel Daemon . Its success led to him speaking in 02008 for Long Now’s Seminar series and to a deal with a major publisher. In 02014 he published his fourth novel Influx.

Daniel SuarezDaniel Suarez (photo by Steve Payne)

Daniel Suarez’s list

Getting science fiction recommendations from great authors is an honor and a privilege. And we appreciation their support for The Interval, in helping to give it the best library possible, as well as of The Long Now Foundation as a whole. Books from all three of these authors will appear in the Manual for Civilization, as well as these selections that they’ve made of books that are important to them.

We hope that you will give us your list, too. If you’ve donated then you should have the link to submit books. And if you haven’t, then hurry up and give before October 1 at 5pm–your last chance to become a charter donor.

 

The Interval at Long Now in San FranciscoPhoto by Because We Can 

Adam Steltzner: Beyond Mars, Earth— A Seminar Flashback

Posted on September 27th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In October 02013 NASA engineer Adam Steltzner spoke for Long Now about landing Curiosity on Mars. In Beyond Mars, Earth, Steltzner gives an insiders view of previous Mars missions leading up to his team’s incredible feat of landing the Curiosity rover safely on the planet’s surface. More broadly he ponders why humans have the need to explore and where we may go next.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. Beyond Mars, Earth is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

This month our Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) ”flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of Beyond Mars, Earth (in full here):

“With this kind of exploration,“ Steltzner said, “we’re really asking questions about ourselves. How great is our reach? How grand are we? Exploration of this kind is not practical, but it is essential.” He quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

After the epic subjects of his talk, Steltzner’s Q&A with Stewart Brand gets quite personal. A late-comer to science and engineering, one night he looked up at the stars, asked himself a question, and that lead him to a whole new life.

Adam Steltzner is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who has worked on the the Galileo, Cassini, and Mars Pathfinder missions as well as the Shuttle-Mir Program. He was the lead engineer of Curiosity rover’s “Entry, Descent, and Landing“ phase.

Adam Steltzner at Long Now

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Larry Harvey Seminar Tickets

Posted on September 25th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Larry Harvey presents Why The Man Keeps Burning

Larry Harvey presents “Why The Man Keeps Burning”

TICKETS

Monday October 20, 02014 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

“Scaling up will kill Burning Man.” “That new rule will kill Burning Man.” “The Bureau of Land Management will kill Burning Man.” “Selling tickets that way will kill Burning Man.” “Board infighting will kill Burning Man.” “Upscale turnkey camps will kill Burning Man.”

Ha.

What if Burning Man is too fragile to be killed? What if celebrating ephemerality is the best guarantee of continuity? What if every year’s brand new suspension of disbelief has deep-down durability? What if conservatively radical principles and evolving rules are more robust over time than anything merely physical?

What really keeps the Man burning? If anyone knows, it should be the event’s primary founder, author of The Principles, and ongoing Chief Philosophical Officer, artist Larry Harvey.

New Book Explores the Legacy of Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum

Posted on September 23rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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image

In 02007, SALT speaker Alex Wright introduced us to Paul Otlet, the Belgian visionary who spent the first half of the twentieth century building a universal catalog of human knowledge, and who dreamed of creating a global information network that would allow anyone virtual access to this “Mundaneum.”

In June of this year, Wright released a new monograph that examines the impact of Otlet’s work and dreams within the larger history of humanity’s attempts to organize and archive its knowledge. In Cataloging The World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, Wright traces the visionary’s legacy from its idealistic mission through the Mundaneum’s destruction by the Nazis, to the birth of the internet and the data-driven world of the 21st century.

Otlet’s work on his Mundaneum went beyond a simple wish to collect and catalog knowledge: it was driven by a deeply idealistic vision of a world brought into harmony through the free exchange of information.

An ardent “internationalist,” Otlet believed in the inevitable progress of humanity towards a peaceful new future, in which the free flow of information over a distributed network would render traditional institutions – like state governments – anachronistic. Instead, he envisioned a dawning age of social progress, scientific achievement, and collective spiritual enlightenment. At the center of it all would stand the Mundaneum, a bulwark and beacon of truth for the whole world. (Wright 02014)

Otlet imagined a system of interconnected “electric telescopes” with which people could easily access the Mundaneum’s catalog of information from the comfort of their homes – a ‘world wide web’ that would bring the globe together in shared reverence for the power of knowledge. But sadly, his vision was thwarted before it could reach its full potential. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova writes,

At the peak of Otlet’s efforts to organize the world’s knowledge around a generosity of spirit, humanity’s greatest tragedy of ignorance and cruelty descended upon Europe. As the Nazis seized power, they launched a calculated campaign to thwart critical thought by banning and burning all books that didn’t agree with their ideology … and even paved the muddy streets of Eastern Europe with such books so the tanks would pass more efficiently.

Otlet’s dream of open access to knowledge obviously clashed with the Nazis’ effort to control the flow of information, and his Mundaneum was promptly shut down to make room for a gallery displaying Third Reich art. Nevertheless, Otlet’s vision survived, and in many ways inspired the birth of the internet.

While Otlet did not by any stretch of the imagination “invent” the Internet — working as he did in an age before digital computers, magnetic storage, or packet-switching networks — nonetheless his vision looks nothing short of prophetic. In Otlet’s day, microfilm may have qualified as the most advanced information storage technology, and the closest thing anyone had ever seen to a database was a drawer full of index cards. Yet despite these analog limitations, he envisioned a global network of interconnected institutions that would alter the flow of information around the world, and in the process lead to profound social, cultural, and political transformations. (Wright 02014)

Still, Wright argues, some characteristics of today’s internet fly in the face of Otlet’s ideals even as they celebrate them. The modern world wide web is predicated on an absolute individual freedom to consume and contribute information, resulting in an amorphous and decentralized network of information whose provenance can be difficult to trace. In many ways, this defies Otlet’s idealistic belief in a single repository of absolute and carefully verified truths, open access to which would lead the world to collective enlightenment. Wright wonders,

Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.

Nevertheless, Wright sees in Otlet’s vision a useful ideal to keep striving for:

Otlet’s Mundaneum will never be. But it nonetheless offers us a kind of Platonic object, evoking the possibility of a technological future driven not by greed and vanity, but by a yearning for truth, a commitment to social change, and a belief in the possibility of spiritual liberation. Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network—always far more expansive than a mere information retrieval tool—points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become. And while history may judge Otlet a relic from another time, he also offers us an example of a man driven by a sense of noble purpose, who remained sure in his convictions and unbowed by failure, and whose deep insights about the structure of human knowledge allowed him to peer far into the future…

Wright summarizes Otlet’s legacy with a simple question: are we better off when we safeguard the absolute individual freedom to consume and distribute information as we see fit, or should we be making a more careful effort to curate the information we are surrounded by? It’s a question that we see emerging with growing urgency in contemporary debates about privacy, data sharing, and regulation of the internet – and our answer to it is likely to play an important role in shaping the future of our information networks.

To learn more about Cataloging the World, please take a look at Maria Popova’s thoughtful review, or visit the book’s website.

 

The Interval Brickstarter Funded: Support The Robot Stretch Goal

Posted on September 22nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Photo by Christopher Michel

The Interval brickstarter ends on October 1 at 5pm–that’s the last chance to become an Interval Charter Donor. We’ve set two ambitious stretch goals to reach before it ends: raising $550,000 in total (about $42K to go) and having 1000 total donors.

Thanks to hundreds of supporters around the world we have funded our ‘brickstarter’ for The Interval’s construction! This achievement was possible thanks to more than 700 long-term thinkers (and counting) who have donated over the last 2 years.

Our supporters gave from around the US and the world: Atlanta to Zurich; Australia to Croatia; New Hampshire to Hawaii! Thank you all for your generosity in helping build a one-of-a-kind venue, The Long Now Foundation’s new home: The Interval at Long Now.

Photo by Because We Can

The Interval is now open to all 10AM to Midnight every day at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The names of our Charter Donors will soon be listed on our Donor Wall within The Interval as thanks for their support in making our new home a reality.

The money raised will help fund the Interval’s two robots by October 1st.

Let’s meet our Robots… 

The Bespoke Gin Robot will be stationed behind the bar and wields an array of 15 botanicals including coriander seed, lemon peel, and apricot kernels. Each botanical is individually distilled by the amazing folks at St. George Spirits and the bot’s with components were made by Party Robotics. 

Gin Robot design image by Because We Can

Including the juniper spirit base, the Gin Robot can create custom gin to-order in 87,178,291,200 possible combinations. The Interval could serve up a different gin variation each day for the next 238 million years. It’s our hope that this cocktail possibility machine will be worthy of sitting next to Brian Eno’s Ambient Painting.

Top 10 donors in the stretch phase get invited to a special tasting with the Gin Robot.

Our Chalkboard Robot has been designed by artist Jürg Lehni. The chalkboard itself is now up at The Interval. It awaits the artist’s arrival from Switzerland to install the bot which will then write or draw by our command. Below you can see Viktor, out robot’s elder cousin, in action.

In addition to all our usual donor benefits, if we hit BOTH the $550K mark and reach 1000 donors, we have a couple of Long Now surprises planned to thank all of our charter donors.

Everyone who donates by October 1 will be a charter donor. All of our great donor perks like Challenge Coins, Long Now flasks, and bottle keep bottles of exclusive St George Bourbon, Single Malt, or Bristlecone Gin are still available.

Long Now Challenge Coin

The stretch goal of $550,000–adding $55K to our brickstarter total–will help cover costs associated with building and installing the robots. We’ve set a participation stretch goal of 1000 Donors (less than 300 to go!).

The Interval is intended to be both a community hub and a funding source for the Foundation going forward. Your donations help to defray our construction and startup costs, so your generosity is incredibly important to getting this endeavor off on a flying start toward profitability.

If you haven’t donated, please consider a gift by October 1, to become a Charter Donor and enjoy first chance to buy tickets to Interval events and be listed on the Donor Wall. You’ll also be a part of starting up a unique venue that helps get important ideas about long-term thinking into the world.

If you have donated, thank you! We’d appreciate your help spreading the word before the October 1 deadline. And remember gifts (and employer matches) are cumulative–consider going up a level? We have only days left to reach our stretch goal and fund these wonderful additions to The Interval’s array of mechanical wonders.

Photo by Because We Can

Future of Human Spaceflight at The Interval: September 30, 02014

Posted on September 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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On Tuesday September 30, 02014 Ariel Waldman (Spacehack.org)
leads us to the stars. Tickets are almost sold out!

Ariel Waldman and the Shuttle Atlantis
Ariel Waldman selfie by Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman: The Future of Human Spaceflight
Tuesday September 30, 02014 at 7:30pm

at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are encouraged
Download the Pathways to Exploration report

Ariel Waldman has developed a unique career from her enthusiasm for space exploration and her passion to get more people participating in science on Earth and beyond.

Waldman founded Spacehack.org to help anyone with Internet access find space research efforts in need of crowdsourced assistance. Some like SETI@home would like to borrow cycles from your home computer when you’re not using it. Your processing power can help crunch small pieces of big data. And who knows what you might help discover.

Some Spacehack-linked projects need human eyes to evaluate out-of-this-world images like M83 which quickly gets amateurs up to speed estimating the age of star clusters and classifying them. Others projects need things like writing or coding help. Then there’s Spacelog which asks contributors to review transcripts of past NASA missions. Reading vintage dialogue between astronauts and Mission Control, then helping to share it with the world–it’s any space geek’s dream.

Spacelog Mercury 3 transcripts

Spacelog’s Mercury 3 transcripts

Spacehack helps thousands of all ages to learn about and participate in space science. While Science Hack Days, which Ariel helps facilitate around the world, enable the scientifically curious to create fun and productive collaborative projects over the course of a couple days.

Both Spacehack and Science Hack Days are inclusive, enabling both experts and those without advanced scientific education to participate. This work led to Ariel being awarded an accommodation from The White House as a Citizen Scientist.

She was also asked to join a committee of space industry insiders to contemplate the Future of Human Space Travel. The U.S. Congress asked the committee to:

[Undertake] a study to review the long-term goals, core capabilities, and direction of the U.S. human spaceflight program and make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program.

Their work is now complete and the final 286-page report is free to download. It’s called Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.

At The Interval on Tuesday, September 30th, Ariel will talk about the committee, the report, and all the work she has done bringing space and science to the people of Earth.

We hope you can join us; there are only a few tickets left!

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval, our bar / cafe / museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Tickets just went on sale for another talk about Humanity’s relationship to the deep ocean.

Interval donors hear about our events first. There’s still time to become a charter donor. See the full list of upcoming talks here.

Peter Schwartz: The Starships ARE Coming — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on September 12th, 02014 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 11 Comments

In September 02013 futurist Peter Schwartz spoke for Long Now about realistic scenarios for human interstellar travel. Peter, a founding Long Now Board member, participated in “The 100-year Starship” project and contributed to the book Starship Century (Edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford) with scientists and science fiction authors positing realistic ways humanity could voyage beyond our Solar System.

Our September Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) ”flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Starships ARE Coming is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options.

  1. Generational ships: whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendants will complete.
  2. Sleep ships: like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation
  3. Relativistic ships: at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.
  4. Download ships: “Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device.

Peter Schwartz is a futurist, scenario planning  expert, and author of The Art of the Long View. Currently he serves as Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at Salesforce.com. In 01988 Peter co-founded Global Business Network and served as their chairman until 02011. He is a co-founding Board Member of The Long Now Foundation and has spoken in our SALT series on four occasions.

Peter Schwartz

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Revive & Restore Update at the Commonwealth Club September 18, 02014

Posted on September 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 3.15.02 PM

On Thursday, September 18th, Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand will be giving an update on the Revive & Restore project at the Commonwealth Club of California. The talk will explore the flagship project of Revive, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, as well as several other projects that have come to fruition since Stewart gave his SALT in 02013. Some of these projects, like Ferreting the Genome, focus on using genetic technology to help species at the brink of extinction that need more genetic variability in their population, while others, like the Heath Hen project, focus on new candidates for de-extinction.

01-tedx-rebirth-wooly-mammoth_64849_600x450

While discussing the science behind these projects, Stewart and Ryan will be giving a broad overview of the ecological motivation behind these projects, the bioethics of de-extiction, and how genetic technology can generally compliment endangered species protections.

This talk will be free for students, $12 for Long Now and Commonwealth Club members, and $20 for general admission. More information can be found here, and a link for the Long Now member discount can be found in your email.

The Future Declassified at The Interval: Tuesday September 23, 02014

Posted on September 5th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Mathew Burrows at The Interval: The Future Declassified

Our next talk at The Interval takes as its subject the complexities of our collective global future:

Mathew Burrows: The Future Declassified
hosted by Paul Saffo
Tuesday September 23, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are encouraged
as space is limited

The volatility of today’s world is apparent just by reviewing the day’s headlines. Across the globe, the pressures of population growth, environmental change, and constant technological disruption are just a few of the factors that promise to influence how governments, economies, and individual lives will change in the coming years.

So how to make sense of it all? It takes access to information, methodical analysis, and the application of wisdom gained from observing past change to see tectonic patterns in cultural shifts and plot their trajectories. On September 23rd The Interval at Long Now welcomes one of the most seasoned experts in reading the epic trends of the global stage.

Dr. Mathew Burrows has been an advisor to the US Government in various positions for the better part of 30 years. Typically his reports have been available exclusively to top US administration officials, ambassadors, intelligence services, and allied governments. But his new book, appropriately titled The Future Declassified, offers his insight and forecasting talents to the general public. Its foreboding subtitle “Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action” confirms the importance of the stakes at hand.

Looking forward to the year 02030, Burrows underlines the interconnectedness of the decisions made today with the medium and long-term future of our society and the planet.

Long Now Board of Directors member Paul Saffo will be hosting this event. A well-respected forecaster in his own right, Paul teaches forecasting at Stanford University, and he chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University.

We hope you can join us for this important talk, there are still tickets available.

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval, our bar / cafe / museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The lineup of upcoming talks is growing. Check the full list here.

Interval donors hear about our events first: there is still time to become a charter donor.

Drew Endy Seminar Primer

Posted on September 3rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

On Tuesday, September 16th, Drew Endy presents “The iGEM Revolution“ as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Each month, our Seminar Primer gives you some background about the speaker, including links to explore even more.

adventures-in2
From Adventures in Synthetic Biology, by Drew Endy

Biotechnology is a young science, but it’s already proven its (potential) benefit to civilization. We can now engineer bacteria to manufacture life-saving drugs, we have new ways to diagnose disease, and we know how to modify the genome of plants so they become resistant to certain pests. Yet so far, says Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy, biotech has only realized a few of the grand promises it made in the 01970s, after scientists first succeeded in the synthesis of recombinant DNA. How can we realize these promises? How can we make biology easier to engineer? Endy’s answer to these questions is the growing field of synthetic biology, and an open-source, collaborative approach to the development of new bio-engineering tools.

Synthetic biology is built on the technologies of genetic engineering that were developed during the 20th century, but takes them a few steps further. Genetic engineers can isolate blocks of a cell’s genetic material, extract it from its nucleus, and splice it into another cell’s DNA to create a recombinant genome. Synthetic biologists, on the other hand, splice in pieces of DNA that they’ve built from scratch. It’s like the difference between composing an essay by cutting and pasting word sequences from existing texts, or doing so by putting individual letters in sequence in order to create words of your own.

The Human Genome Project gave us the ability to read nature’s instructional manual – DNA – like words in a book. But the real opportunities, scientists say, lie in our ability to not only read genetic code, but to write it, then build it using off-the-shelf chemical ingredients, strung together like holiday lights. It is the creation of new genomes – and a new frontier in bioengineering. (San Jose Mercury News)

Drew Endy was trained as an engineer, but found his way to biology when a senior-year college class made him realize that living matter holds great potential as building material. “I like to build stuff, and biology is the best technology we have for making stuff – trees, people, computing devices, food, chemicals, you name it,” Endy explains in an Edge conversation. He went on to obtain a graduate degree in biochemical engineering. But in his postdoctoral research, Endy began to grow frustrated with the existing cut-and-paste methods of DNA engineering. It’s an inexact science that often produces unexpected side effects: evolution has turned DNA into a complex library of information, and simply splicing in a new gene may not always lead the host cell to express it in the way you had expected. As a feature in The Economist explains,

No intelligent designer would have put the genomes of living organisms together in the way that evolution has. Some parts overlap, meaning that they cannot change jobs independently of one another. Others have lost their function but have not been removed, so they simply clutter things up. And there is no sense of organization or hierarchy. That is because, unlike an engineer, evolution cannot go back to the drawing board, it can merely play with what already exists. Biologists, who seek merely to understand how life works, accept this. Engineers such as Endy, who wish to change the way it works, do not. They want to start again.

Image by Peter and Maria Hoey

The only way to fully control – and understand – what a cell does, Endy realized, is to build its DNA from scratch. We should think of cells a bit more like we think of computers: as hardware that can be fully programmed – by DNA, the perfect software language. In an interview for the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy proposes,

Let’s look at biology not as a science, but as a technology platform … Biology is the most compelling technology platform anybody has ever seen. It’s the stuff of life and it’s a reproducing machine! It’s a nanotechnology that actually works. You can program it with DNA – sort of. We’re learning how to do that. It’s the most overwhelmingly cool, impressive technology platform any engineer is ever going to encounter if they’re alive today.

Endy’s mission is to help the world learn this new technology – to make biology easier (and thereby faster, more accessible, and finally more productive) to engineer. And in order to do that, Endy identifies two crucial tools.

The first is standardization: rather than having to build pieces of DNA from scratch every time they want to create a new gene, synthetic biologists should be able to pick and choose ‘parts’ from a standard, universal toolkit of genetic material. Forbes explains:

The Industrial Revolution got a serious boost in 1864 when a machinist standardized screws. Henceforth someone trying to build an engine could pluck a standard 8-gauge, 32-threads-per-inch machine screw off the shelf. Endy aims for similar standardization in the new field of synthetic biology, and embraces the radical approach of creating a free registry of building blocks. In 2002 MIT professors started a not-for-profit called BioBricks that has collected 2,000 biological components, including gene sequences that sense light, produce light, send messages between cells and switch cell functions on and off.

We can think of BioBricks as the biological equivalent of Legos: they’re pieces of genetic material with universal connectors on each end, so they can be combined with any other piece to create novel strings of DNA. BioBricks make DNA easier to engineer because they create a certain level of abstraction. Rather than having to put the individual As, Cs, T’s and G’s of DNA together when building a synthetic gene, engineers can use BioBricks as a kind of genetic shorthand – just as software programmers make use of languages like Java to spare them the work of writing out their code in bits (Stanford Alumni Magazine). Endy imagines that these BioBricks will be manufactured in so-called BioFabs (International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology) – a “biological design-build facility.” In fact, he helped launch the first one in Emeryville, in 02009.


Image from the European Molecular Biology Organization

The idea of facilities dedicated entirely to building BioBricks suggests that standardization also leads to a productive division of labor. In his interview with the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy explains, “Separation of design and fabrication can allow people to specialize, becoming experts in each area … We’ve seen this with microprocessors. Someone designs the chip and somebody else builds it.” It’s led to more sophisticated processors – by allowing people to specialize, greater complexity can be developed.

The second crucial tool involves making those standard parts publicly available and encouraging everyone – engineers and students alike – to get creative, share their findings, and help one another learn. The BioBricks Foundation, of which Endy is president and co-founder, works on the premise that “… fundamental scientific knowledge belongs to all of us and must be freely available for ethical, open innovation.” In his Edge conversation, Endy adds,

Biotechnology today derives investments from business models that support the exclusive application of different biological functions for a very small number of problems. For example, there are wonderful companies that have locked up most of the relevant intellectual property around how to engineer proteins to bind DNA. The products that they can deliver are going to be measured in small positive integer numbers, a few diseases. But, the real value associated with being able to engineer proteins that bind DNA are in the uncountable applications people could use the proteins for. It’s like a programming language where it would be a big downstream economic cost if you owned “if/then” and you were the only person who could use it.

Endy considers education a crucial component for fostering this open-source collaboration and innovation. He tries to get high schoolers and college students excited about synthetic biology in several ways – by writing comics about it, for example (and you’ll see several images from his Adventures in Synthetic Biology included in this post).

But Endy’s interest in education is truly epitomized by iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It began as an undergraduate course that Endy developed while teaching at MIT, and has since evolved into a large annual event that draws thousands of participants from all over the world. Competing teams use BioBricks – which they get from and contribute back to the BioBricks Foundation’s Standard Registry of Parts – to engineer synthetic organisms that perform particular functions. The competition not only gets undergraduates excited about the field of bioengineering; its promotion of creative collaboration also spurs innovation and advances new technologies.

Of course, the widespread accessibility of new DNA-building tools isn’t entirely risk-free. Critics worry about what kinds of dangerous new things might be built if those standard parts fall into the wrong hands. Endy understands that advances in synthetic biology involve important questions about what new technologies might produce, who will control them, what cultural and ethical implications they’ll hold, and what safety issues may arise. He advocates discussion about these issues: in 02008, The Long Now Foundation hosted a debate between Endy and Jim Thomas, Research Programme Manager at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), and an outspoken critic of synthetic biology.

Though he sees the value of open discussion about the ethics of bioengineering, Endy hopes we do keep thinking about how synthetic biology might benefit society – and how engineering tools can be leveraged to produce that benefit in an accessible and easy, but also responsible and ethical way. Endy will talk about the promise of synthetic biology, his work with iGEM, and more on Tuesday, September 16 at SFJAZZ Center.