Visionaries Expect From Biotechnology the Greatest Change for Humanity

21 October 2020

The Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs and the Invest Foresight business publication organized the Science Fiction as a Vision of Biotechnology roundtable session within the framework of the Open Innovations Forum. All participants of the session have agreed that biotechnology is at the forefront of technological progress, their heyday is just beginning and all the most amazing things are yet to come. This proves the great interest of science fiction authors in biotechnology.

According to Julia Zonis, the science fiction writer, biotechnologist of the Biocad company, the ability to talk to animals and, more broadly, to other species, immortality and omnipotence have always been the main desirable properties of man in the literature about the future. In the 1960s and 1980s, such opportunities were based on the achievements of physics. Subsequently, IT technologies, connecting people to the computer and networks became more popular. Now the most common plots are tied to biotechnology. They help to survive on Mars without a spacesuit, to live forever, and to create like gods. In this respect, interesting is the example of the science fantasy “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny, where at first it seems that the narrative is about some fairy-tale deities, and then it turns out that these messengers of a more advanced civilization are trying to change the life of the backward planet. “Biology is the last reserve that we hope will help humanity make the giant breakthrough to the singularity predicted by physicists,” says Julia Zonis.

“As a practicing biologist, I understand how far we are back in the Stone Age in biotechnology. Just a few thousand years ago (milliseconds by evolutionary standards) man with wails ran through the jungle and did not differ much from monkeys. But even now we are only a few percent different from them. We have a huge number of animal mechanisms that we don’t need, and they reduce our health and life. One of these mechanisms is ageing, and the other is sudden death during a crisis. The doctor is often sure that the patient has recovered, but at that point, something breaks down and the patient dies. It seems to be the same in severe cases of COVID-19,” said Maxim Skulachev, CEO of Mitotech Pharmaceutical Company from RUSNANO’s investment portfolio.

According to the scientist, the coolest option for science fiction is to build a plot without breaking physical laws. In this sense, the reference, in his opinion, is Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian”. “When we set the task of whether a person could overcome ageing, we looked at it from the point of view of whether there were physical and biological laws prohibiting a person from maintaining his/her health longer. My father, Academician Vladimir Skulachev, suggested that there were no such restrictions. One of the laws of Arthur Clarke, whom I consider to be the coolest futurologist, says that if an elderly honored scientist says that something is possible, most likely he is right,” the head of Mitotech said.

According to the biotechnologist, humans have stopped using evolution, replacing it with technological advances that would at that time make major changes in species. “Every person on earth is a separate genetic experiment. If we learn to analyze the data of these experiments, then you can predict the consequences of certain actions of genetic engineers much faster. With the development of digital technologies, such tools become a reality. Therefore, the fantastic future may be much closer to us than professional biologists think,” Maxim Skulachev warned.

Science fiction has long decisively gone beyond science. “We live in the world shaped by biotechnology as the basis of settled, agricultural civilization. Therefore, the topic of creating a new living being possessing some unprecedented properties is the main one,” said Sergey Zhigarev, science fiction historian, founder of the Noviye Gorizonty literary prize. Fantasts have already created civilizations based not on technocratic, but on biological principles. This way, in Harry Harrison’s “Eden Trilogy” submarines, ships, and weapons were living organisms specially grown using biotechnology. In Jeffrey Ryman’s “Kindergarten” houses were grown, and a person received energy not through food, but through photosynthesis. Another area was education, the creation of human satellites. These also include “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by Herbert Wells and the cycle “Rise” by David Brin.

Fantasts are sure that humanity will overcome its biological essence, notes Sergey Zhigarev. This is already happening in real life where the food technology, the industry that is transforming the human nutrition sphere, is the most promising direction for investment. The writers take it further: Greg Egan in the “Subjective Cosmology” trilogy and other works describes the transfer of the human personality from the physical body to electronic media, to other physical bodies, regardless of species and gender, while the personality is preserved.

Biotechnology provides material for fiction, and science fiction writers inspire biotechnologists. The most promising direction is gene therapy: delivery of genetic information using viral vectors—liposomes or nanoparticles—and editing cells with mutant copies of genes, Julia Zonis believes. Although genetic technologies are only at the beginning of their development, it took nine months to create a vaccine against COVID-19, which had previously been impossible to imagine. “Intuition is ahead of consciousness; it is a way of processing information faster than human thought. Therefore, intuitive insights can guide science. To do something unprecedented before, we need to think and assume that it is real, and not in the short term, but in a very distant one,” Julia Zonis is sure. It’s not even interesting to write about technologies of the near future: everything is being introduced faster than books are published, Sergey Zhigarev noted.

International expert on strategic marketing Garrett Johnston considers the Blake’s 7 English TV series to be the best science fiction where artificial intelligence in a networked way used different living and nonliving intelligent life forms of the entire universe. He considers the scale of academician Nikolay Kardashev to be a truly fantastic achievement of science, using which he ranked all ever hypothetically existing or theoretically possible intelligent civilizations in the universe. To reach at least the first level on the Kardashev scale, one must learn to give a person new opportunity and to make him stronger. Historical medicine in our country deals with the treatment of diseases, trying to only save a person from the bad. The first thing an expert expects from biotechnology is a universal diagnostic tool that not only identifies possible diseases, but also advises on the development of human potential so that it can become better in terms of physical, psychological, sexual health, professional, and social level.

“We are only at the beginning of a new era that promises us miracles, and as the coronavirus epidemic proves—not only good but also evil ones. However, the progress should not be limited because of fear of singularity or genetic technologies,” summed up the results of the discussion the moderator of the round table session Konstantin Frumkin, Editor-in-Chief of the Invest Foresight business publication, philosopher, culture expert, and futurology theorist.

Reference

The Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs was established in 2010 in accordance with Federal Law No. 211-FZ “On reorganization of the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies.” The Fund aims to develop the innovative infrastructure in the sphere of nanotechnology and implement the educational and infrastructure programs already started by RUSNANO.

The supreme collegial management body of the Fund is the Supervisory Board. Under the Fund’s Charter, the competence of the Supervisory Council, in particular, includes the issues of determining the priority directions of the Fund’s activity, as well as its strategy and budget. The Chairman of the Fund’s Executive Board, the collegial management body, is the Chairman of the Board of Management Company RUSNANO LLC Sergey Kulikov.

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Mitotech S.A. is a Luxembourg-based biotechnology company developing novel drugs for treatment of predominantly age-related disorders. The core technology behind Mitotech products is based on a novel class of small molecules – mitochondria targeting cardiolipin peroxidation inhibitors. Company’s lead compound SkQ1 is being developed in several drug formulations covering a variety of therapeutic areas with major focus on ophthalmology and neurodegenerative diseases.

100% Mitotech S.A. owned by Russian Mitotech LLC, a portfolio company of RUSNANO.