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Manufacturing People and Large Language Models for Biology: Mommy, No!
Coming up next: a dictatorship of the engineers?
“At its most fundamental level, I think biology can be thought of as an information processing system, albeit an extraordinarily complex and dynamic one. Just as mathematics turned out to be the right description language for physics, biology may turn out to be the perfect type of regime for the application of AI.” ~ DeepMind CEO/cofounder Demis Hassabis
This story is a sandwich. I’ll start with philosophy, then go into a thick layer of “information,” and then end it more philosophy—and hope.
Remember the recently resurfaced short video clip from 2016 about “editing” humans to be intolerant to meat? I am always suspicious of short soundbites, so I watched the entire thing.
The entire thing, worse than the soundbite but with more philosophical depth, is a 2016 World Science Festival panel featuring a couple of renowned geneticists and bioethicists and one disarmingly doting woman from the New York Times.
I highly recommend that before going any further, you click on this link (1:22:15) and observe the reaction of the audience to the probably the most sensible thing said during the entire event, coming from a child.
The panelists, all seemingly well-funded, discuss things like manufacturing human DNA and whole new
orphans people from scratch, about germline editing (introducing heritable genetic changes, which, they say, is already being done), about genetically editing people to be more compliant with the current thing empathetic, or to be allergic to meat and smaller in size “for the planet,” etc.
Program date: June 4, 2016
MODERATOR: Amy Harmon
PARTICIPANTS: George Church, Drew Endy, Gregory E. Kaebnick, S. Matthew Liao
Amy Harmon Introduction 00:05 George Church tells us about his new BIG project 3:15 Drew Endy on the launch of constructing an organization that constructs human genomes. 7:18 Why does the human genome proposal come up now? 16:10 How could we edit humans for climate change? 27:40 Entrepreneurs have a trillion dollar market opportunity. 36:30 Human enhancement is tethered to human capacity 44:00 Is driving down the cost one of the goals of the project. 54:25 What about the contribution of genetic diversity? 1:04:46 Using cognitive enhancement to reduce birth rates 1:10:01 How do you get to a go, no-go situation? 1:12:35 How do you think altering our genome will change our society? 1:19:13 What would stop governments from creating super armies? 1:22:15
Is it theoretically possible for the scientific understanding to get to a place where people would be able to do “gene surgery” in order to cure disease without accidentally making people grow a third leg? Maybe, I don’t know but theoretically speaking, it is possible.
Do we, as a species, currently possess the spiritual clarity and modesty to play with the power of gene editing without creating a ton of additional suffering for the generations to come? No, we do not. We definitely do not. Collectively, at this moment, we are as messed up as it gets. Very bruised on the inside and acting mad.
Are the smart enchanted children, funded and encouraged by the dark-minded adults, going for it anyway? Yes, they are.
The crazy thing is that that these panelists, whom I see—after some deliberation—not as “villains” but as “enchanted and dangerous children with matches,” are significantly messed up in the head but sincere. You can watch them think out loud, defend their respective positions, talk about morality and preserving the human species, even argue with each other about the finer details of their extremely disrespectful and destructive proposals, etc.
In other words, they are a perfect personification of our missionary civilization.
The crazies are running the asylum, and when in a crazy echo chamber, do as the crazies do, etc.
And the consequences of such missionary activities? The consequences are for everyone to deal with. Ask the people with cancer. Ask the people whose parents have dementia. Those used to be very rare conditions—and now the science has gotten so advanced—and the Earth so poisoned, and our bodies so contaminated—that nearly everyone gets ‘em. And so what about all this suffering? What about it, dear missionaries?
Information: George Church
In this story, I would like to look at two of the panelists. Let’s start with George Church.
George Church is a very smart and famous guy. I have no kind words for his projects but he is clearly very bright.
George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of PersonalGenomes.org, which provides the world's only open-access information on human Genomic, Environmental & Trait data (GET). His 1984 Harvard PhD included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing & barcoding. These led to the first genome sequence (pathogen, Helicobacter pylori) in 1994 . His innovations have contributed to nearly all "next generation" DNA sequencing methods and companies (CGI-BGI, Life, Illumina, Nanopore). This plus his lab's work on chip-DNA-synthesis, gene editing and stem cell engineering resulted in founding additional application-based companies spanning fields of medical diagnostics ( Knome/PierianDx, Alacris, Nebula, Veritas ) & synthetic biology / therapeutics ( AbVitro/Juno, Gen9/enEvolv/Zymergen/Warpdrive/Gingko, Editas, Egenesis ). He has also pioneered new privacy, biosafety, ELSI, environmental & biosecurity policies. He was director of an IARPA BRAIN Project and 3 NIH Centers for Excellence in Genomic Science (2004-2020). His honors include election to NAS & NAE & Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science. He has coauthored 650 papers, 156 patent publications & a book (Regenesis).
One of the areas he is working on is age reversal.
Another area he is working on is making cells immune to viruses. (Ummm…. Q: Given the solid track record of the scientists of “fixing” one problem and inevitably breaking ten other things that they haven’t quite thought through, how does he know that his presumably virus-resistant cells aren’t going to be less resistant to a million other pathogens or chemicals that are out there? A: He does not.)
In the interview, he mentions succeeding in creating virus-resistant cells that can be used for vaccine manufacturing. (In vaccine manufacturing, they use animal and human cells. He casually mentions the problem of biological contamination—and his virus-resistant cells are supposed to solve that.)
He is also working on recreating the woolly mammoth.
He has also worked on “barcoding the whole mouse.”
George’s “moral cause,” seemingly, is that only the good guys should have their hands on genomic machinery but not the bad guys.
No US or international law requires companies that print DNA sequences to check what exactly they’re selling or who they’re selling it to. Nearly all of the companies working in this exciting new field — called DNA synthesis — check anyway because they want their pioneering industry to transform medicine and science, not call down a catastrophe. “If there’s an order for Ebola that’s being ordered by the CDC in Atlanta, that’s great,” James Diggans, director of Data Science and Biosecurity for Twist Bioscience, told me. [Amazing, if you ask me.] “But if we get an order for Ebola to be shipped to North Korea, we won’t do it.” [Because only North Korea is capable of doing bad things.]
Speaking of good guys and bad guys, in 2019 he apologized for having worked with Epstein.
S. Matthew Liao
S. Matthew Liao is a seemingly sincere and very messed up bioethicist enjoying an establishment spotlight.
S. Matthew Liao holds the Arthur Zitrin Chair in Bioethics and is the Director for The Center for Bioethics at New York University. From 2006 to 2009, he was the Deputy Director and James Martin Senior Research Fellow in the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University. He was the Harold T. Shapiro Research Fellow in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University in 2003–2004, and a Greenwall Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and a Visiting Researcher at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University from 2004–2006. In May 2007, he founded Ethics Etc, a group blog for discussing contemporary philosophical issues in ethics and related areas. He is interested in a wide range of issues including ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, moral psychology, and bioethics.
Editor in Chief, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 2013 –
Editorial Board Member, American Journal of Bioethics, 2009 –
Review Board Member, International Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2010 - 2012
Affiliated with other departments or programs
Affiliate Professor of Philosophy; Environmental Studies; and Division of Medical Ethics, Department of Population Health
The titles of his scholarly works invoke an inner psychoanalyst in me. What happened to him?
S. Matthew Liao argues here that children have a right to be loved. To do so he investigates questions such as whether children are rightholders; what grounds a child's right to beloved; whether love is an appropriate object of a right; and other philosophical and practical issues. His proposal is that all human beings have rights to the fundamental conditions for pursuing a good life; therefore, as human beings, children have human rights to the fundamental conditions for pursuing a good life. Since being loved is one of those fundamental conditions, children thus have a right to be loved. Liao shows that this claim need not be merely empty rhetoric, and that the arguments for this right can hang together as a coherent whole. This is the first book to make a sustained philosophical case for the right of children to be loved. It makes a unique contribution to the fast-growing literature on family ethics, in particular, on children's rights and parental rights and responsibilities, and to the emerging field of the philosophy of human rights.
The prospect of using memory modifying technologies raises interesting and important normative concerns. We first point out that those developing desirable memory modifying technologies should keep in mind certain technical and user-limitation issues. We next discuss certain normative issues that the use of these technologies can raise such as truthfulness, appropriate moral reaction, self-knowledge, agency, and moral obligations. Finally, we propose that as long as individuals using these technologies do not harm others and themselves in certain ways, and as long as there is no prima facie duty to retain particular memories, it is up to individuals to determine the permissibility of particular uses of these technologies.
Speaking of memory modification, here is a video of his talk about it. I found the talk hard to watch, I have no idea about his life and I hope it is very good but subjectively, it felt like watching an abused child doing a presentation about countering abuse at a conference sponsored by abusers. It is as if he is floating in space moving his lips and producing words, while his soul is crying out to him for him to hear.
Large Language Models for Biology
Here is more:
Large language models like GPT-4 have taken the world by storm thanks to their astonishing command of natural language . Yet the most significant long-term opportunity for LLMs will entail an entirely different type of language: the language of biology.
One striking theme has emerged from the long march of research progress across biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics over the past century: it turns out that biology is a decipherable, programmable, in some ways even digital system.
DNA encodes the complete genetic instructions for every living organism on earth using just four variables—A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine) and T (thymine). Compare this to modern computing systems, which use two variables—0 and 1—to encode all the world’s digital electronic information. One system is binary and the other is quaternary, but the two have a surprising amount of conceptual overlap; both systems can properly be thought of as digital.
To take another example, every protein in every living being consists of and is defined by a one-dimensional string of amino acids linked together in a particular order. Proteins range from a few dozen to several thousand amino acids in length, with 20 different amino acids to choose from.
This, too, represents an eminently computable system, one that language models are well-suited to learn.
As DeepMind CEO/cofounder Demis Hassabis put it: “At its most fundamental level, I think biology can be thought of as an information processing system, albeit an extraordinarily complex and dynamic one. Just as mathematics turned out to be the right description language for physics, biology may turn out to be the perfect type of regime for the application of AI [emphasis mine]”
Large language models are at their most powerful when they can feast on vast volumes of signal-rich data, inferring latent patterns and deep structure that go well beyond the capacity of any human to absorb. They can then use this intricate understanding of the subject matter to generate novel, breathtakingly sophisticated output [emphasis mine].
By ingesting all of the text on the internet, for instance, tools like ChatGPT have learned to converse with thoughtfulness and nuance on any imaginable topic. By ingesting billions of images, text-to-image models like Midjourney have learned to produce creative original imagery on demand.
Pointing large language models at biological data—enabling them to learn the language of life—will unlock possibilities that will make natural language and images seem almost trivial by comparison.
Help us all God.
You know, the funny thing about ChatGPT is that it lies through its teeth. It uses smooth syntax—yes—but it lies. And lies. And lies. And by that I mean not just being coded for propaganda, I mean lying for no apparent reason, the so called “hallucinations” where AI makes things up and inserts made up “facts” into real facts, so you would have to know the subject well in order to see which parts of the AI story are accurate, and which are not.
Yours truly has skipped the ChatGPT craze. I played with it for a few days and got disappointed and bored. For giggles, I asked it to write an article about me. The bio it produced was a masterpiece of PR… it was really glamorous … but it was mostly untrue. :)
And now let’s imagine this same language model applied to biology. I don’t want to even imagine what kind of monsters it is going to spit out…
(A side note: here is my 2015 article about Google and love. Another side note: as I was finishing this story, somebody very appropriately shared Sasha’s recent article about AI. I like Sasha, so here).
Oh, models. Oh, AI. I get it that our aspiring masters want to be in possession of really productive AI and bioprinting for when the people are too sick to work.
They are trying. They are likely going to create a lot of unnecessary, stupid, cruel suffering. But in the end, they are not even going to end up with “I am afraid I can’t do it, Dave.” They are going to end up with this.
What a heavy paradox.
On the one hand, we have a massive number of people who are not themselves. Because they are not quite themselves, they go for various tricks designed and implemented by cold-minded villains, fall in love with their cage, defend their zombie rights vehemently, and fight you back when you try to bring them back to life (they are entitled to zombiehood, by the way, it just sucks).
On the one hand, we have real villains who do what they do in a cold mind.
On the third hand (looks like human engineering is going great), there’s us, looking at all this and rubbing our eyes.
If you are sane and kind, and find yourself among the people who are not quite in their soul element, you also have to be very patient and not get too hurt as they keep making choices that are bad for everyone, betraying themselves, betraying you, coming up with word salad to justify the position of their metaphorical handler in the ghost world (the manager of their bad habits) that they mistake for their own position, and so on.
You have to be very strong. And you cannot really have an ego because if you have an ego, you will die from pain.
A very strange situation but a very empowering way to grow your soul and get very confident about who you are.
It’s all about remembering why we are here and who we are.
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