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Babbage: Designer genes


The world that is ever more complex able to track how ideas emerged spread and improve over generations and generations and generations. Our culture becomes more complex and becomes more diverse and the new building innovation which revolutionized the way that structures are built then managed to produce a structure. That's lighter and the stronger. They can use it to build a couple of bridges in Australia. I'm Kenneth Cookie a senior editor at the economist. And your listening to badge or weekly show on technology and science but I for years. There's been talk of designer. Babies this refers to perspective parents who can mix mix and match genetic attributes to create the kid. They want the. It's smarter taller or more athletic. Usually this conjures up the idea of gene editing that is actively changing lots of little variants in the genes of an embryo to effect his traits. While this will surely happen. Humans amid public outcry over interfering hearing with nature and playing God. A less intrusive technology already exists. That does something similar labs can screen embryos and select ones for test tube fertilisation association to minimize the risk of genetic disorders. Like cystic fibrosis or haystacks disease. An American company culture nomadic prediction is taking this one step further looking at whether embryos having risk of developing some illnesses later in life such as heart disease and a couple in California are going through the process right now. So how does this work. And what are the implications on an Obama. Charrier is a science writer and a journalist and he's written about it for an upcoming Ming issue of the Economist. He joins me down the line. Hello ANA now. I can't tell you I'm great. I don't know what is happening. Well when when most people think about designer babies well they're thinking about is gene editing now gene editing is very much in its infancy and Whoa. You're really talking about that. Is going into a genome and With a snip payroll there. You Change One or two genes either to avoid at some sort of heritable illness or make some other large change in the Gino now. What's become increasingly clear over the lost? A few decades is that it's not just one or two genes that affect your chances of developing illness in later life such as aw disease or diabetes but it's hundreds of genes spread right the way to the genome and not only that but it's small changes in those genes many many thousands of them that all add up to affect your chances of a disease or lots. It's of other traits. So what is the technology. It began with a technique called a genome wide associations. That he's now as the name mm-hmm suggests this is looking at the entire genome of somebody and want genome wide associations that is did it is using special chips. They were able to begin picking up the genetic variation across the genome that contributes beauts to a particular trait or illness And then once you had Located all of these little bits of genetic variation creation you could use computer algorithms and artificial intelligence to find out how they correlated to the trait in question gene. So how do these chips work. So the technology that enable this is Something called a snip chips now. SNIP in this case. SMP stands for single nucleoside polymorphism 's and these are the small changes in genes. That I was talking about earlier. The chips are essentially silicon chips chips and they have bits of DNA on them. And when you run somebody's DNA over these chips the DNA sticks to it. And it tells you whether the person has a particular snips in question how accurate is the sort of screening. And what does it cost well. The chips are incredibly cheap. And that's a major advantage there less than fifty dollars each now given the huge cost of screening for say breast cancer of Kansas. It seems to be a bit of a no brainer to apply this in terms of how reliable they are. It depends on how well a particular illness or trade has been studied so the more information you have the genetic information you have the more reliable in away these Tessa but it has reached a stage where four say heart disease you can predict quite reliably whether somebody is at three or four fold risk of developing a disease in later life. It sounds like a fantastic technology that we should all embrace who could possibly be opposed to it. Well and here you get to the controversy because was when you start selecting embryos on the basis of this you run into problems so there are many issues here. One is is what traits should people be allowed to select happy with people being able to select embryos on the basis of their intelligence allegiance on whether they'll be good playing cricket or football. Oh whether they should have blonde hair and blue eyes on the a slightly less controversial side if you're trying to pick a healthy baby very complicated process because if a particular embryo Brio might be a high risk of diabetes but they may be a low risk of other diseases and finding that balance has a difficult decision often would require counselling in Britain for example. The regulatory body is charged with this. HFEA would almost certainly he not allow this technology because that view is that an intervention like this is only justifiable if hits saves the life of the Child. So is Britain being unenlightened illiberal or are they being enlightened and showing the dignity of natural humankind and I think that's the question that is now going to be fought over. America has the laxest regulations when it comes to reproductive technologies technologies probably in the world even places like China for example would probably look at selecting embryos for their I Q and most European countries also prohibit this technology for similar reasons. The so what's the significance of the California couples couple's decision to screen the rambos implanted. The significance is that this is the first time that Paula Genyk scoring has been used at the embryo stage to who choose which embryo implants on the basis of whether they will develop particular diseases. Now the firm Genomic prediction addiction has said that it will not offer the scores required to distinguish between embryos of different intelligences butts brought in theory. There's no reason why they couldn't and I think when we look back on this we may see this as as the start of designer Zeina babies proper. So what you're saying is that children. Don't come from storks. I'm going to leave that to a grownup to explain thank you. Thanks very much Kim. If you WANNA learn more about genetic screening you can pick up uh upcoming issue of the Economist and you can also subscribe by going to economist Dot com slash radio offer to get twelve issues for twelve dollars or twelve pounds. This last weekend Babich. We spoke to Tom. Siebel about the importance of digital transformation transformation' in today's business and technology world. He's written a book on the subject. Called digital transformation survive and thrive in an era of mass extinction so we ran a contest to give away a copy of the book to the listener. Who Best answered this question? What Company Institution and society failed to make the requisite transformation in earlier pre digital era? Now we had lots of great entries and our favorites that sadly didn't win were the underwood manual typewriter. They missed the shift. To Electric the Edison disc they had superior sound quality but failed to electrify their production processes. The went out of business. Other big theme ideas included the Dutch east India company that failed to invest in new naval assets and the Andrew Falls less able to to cope with the new climate conditions. But one of our favorites and the runner up is Xerox. The company that that businesses would continue to use paper so their experiments experiments with new operating systems graphical interfaces were not commercialized but those innovations were picked up by Microsoft for software and apple for the computer mouse and they ran with it. But wait the contests dress that we wanted. Pre digital transformations so sadly it is not eligible to win the top prize so the winner is listener. James Callaghan from Columbia Maryland. Who wrote my great great grandfather owned a New York City business business called Oregon Iron Works and they made the pipes and valves and such the carried the gas for gas lights? They went bankrupt after the electric light came on the scene and showed US photographs in the book reference to his great great crab father's business. Now what I love about the answer is you can imagine that. The company could've could've gone into insulation for electrical circuits were the right of way conduits for electric lighting. We'll send the winner copy of Thomas Book but Thomas sent several copies copies so we're going to send others to those who answered underwood typewriters the Dutch east India Company and yes xerox to everyone who entered thank you. This has been a lot of fun next up the field of cultural evolution. I find it one of the most exciting areas as of science it refers to how ideas are transmitted and change over time. Guy Of Vince has looked at the issue deeply. She's an award. Winning Science journalist is an author and her latest book is transcendence how humans evolved through fire language beauty and time. We invited her into talk about. What she's she's uncovered? I started by asking what is the role and significance of cultural evolution. Cultural Evolution is very similar ALAH to genetic evolution in that. It's the selection down the generation of information. I'm in our genetic deletion. It's the selection of genes and traits. So whether whether or not a gene for big is transmitted down the generation and it's the same with cultural evolution so we transmit this information whether it's how to make a knife or whether or not it's polite to Burp and we passed down the generations but he also improve every time. We have these modifications these little mutations nations if you like creeping so somebody makes the knife little bit differently and that if it's better than the other way of making a knife will then be passed down so over generations and generations and generations. I'll culture becomes more complex and it becomes more diverse. So there sounds like there's a sort of wake interpretation history here that there's a sort of Natural Gillian progressiveness to society that we knew that the Egyptians had one man is free today. All our free then explain the guns of Flanders and decimation of Redone. So yeah I mean. I started off writing this book without very idea that we're progressing towards something better in that you know in the pause. These poor stone-age idiots didn't know any better and so they made stuff and they were very clever and it was a bit rubbish. And now we've become. I'm really great over the generations and we have our phones and we have you know aeroplanes. And all that sort of thing about actually I- reassessing. I I think complexity takes time so the technologies that we have now are more complex and more sophisticated than ones that came earlier in history. But what have we really progress. Can we say we've progressed. But my concern isn't one of just history. It's really about your point in your book of cultural evolution where we're seeing it in some domains but we're not seeing it others. How could that be possible that we all cook our food without actually going through the trial and error that indeed cooking food is better better because we get more of the nutrients without expending the energy yet? We're not able to do that when it comes to. Things like on the economic or the political sphere. Well I would argue that in lots of ways we are so so if we look at our political and economic systems now they're very very different from the small hunter gatherer bands existed previously. Where just you to the size of the group and just you to the complexities of their lives? What we evolved to is not necessarily something better? I don't want to attach value to what we evolve towards is something more complex more diverse so evolution it delivers generally more complexity and that's all kinds of evolution and that exists exists in our social systems and it also exists in our technologies so so I would say yes you know. All Social Systems now are incredibly complex. We have forms of government. We have forms of democracy democracy. We have local democracies. And you know we have the different tools that we have the different components that we started with which is individual humans but how we range ourselves solves as a society I would say is becoming much more complex than actually. I argue that. We are becoming so complex now. And so Joined up so collaborative that's a humanity rather than as individual people that we're actually evolving into something very different a super organism. Now how could I not read your book and think that we can evolve evolve in such complexity as to create the modern economy. But we're not able to evolve our thinking to protect the planet and not that we depend on to live. I would say we already all we already taking steps you know. There is a new awareness. This year's been really really interesting for me because I've been Investigating and researching and reporting reporting on environmental change for the past fifteen years and the bottles. I've had to make anybody remotely interested in something. Random and like plastics in the ocean or or climate change has been You know it's been impossible and suddenly this last year. People really excited about it. So there are tipping points socially socially as well as technologically take you to the next level that take species to the next level. So let me press you on this since you were a student of cultural evolution solution. What does the history of cultural evolution tell us about how we can tackle these thorny challenges? These complex challenges like climate change. Do we have to simply evolve our thinking at the scale of cultural evolution which is slow with fits and starts or is there a way to jumpstart it so that we can actually solve all these really thorny problems the history of humanity tells us. Is that cultural. Evolution occurs fastest and is more efficient when the size of the group is bigger and when it's interconnected and that's happened throughout our history. We see these explosions in cultural evolution. So we see an explosion in new technologies but also new types of societies forming and new solutions to our problems and at the moment we have the biggest population ever and the most interconnected population as well. So we've got more than seven and a half billion of us and we're all hyper connected. So that gives us the opportunity to exchange ideas not as much faster with more different people and more diversity of ideas so theoretically we should be coming up with more solutions not from the political answer but from a more scientific one. It seems like we're at a period in which the world is going backwards not forwards in terms of creating these fee brial links suit beneficial misreading history. No science as with any of our cultural pursuits whether it's science or whether it's all to whether it's architectural oh engineering anything. It's the same process. We creating something and relies on this connectedness collaboration the sharing of ideas. She everything we do as humans relies on that. And so yes if we if we isolate ourselves deliberately if we if we separate if we have the the rise of populism actually is is actually It's a denial of complexity. That's what it is at its heart. It increases divisions within societies loyalties. It offers people but essentially is a denial of complexity. It's climate denier. Listen It's a denial of all sorts of environmental and health related things and it's very damaging to the kind of open minded collaborative scientific tools that we need in order to find solutions to our most pressing problems whether they be climate change or whether they be biodiversity loss or pulpit say you know many of the other huge problems. We're facing at the moment as a huge Global Society Society Guy. Thank you very much and this week. We have another book giveaway this time. It is a signed copy of guys new book transcendence how humans evolved through fire language beauty. And time this week we're asking of the four elements that are focused on the subtitle will fire language beauty time. What's missing is their fifth element that ought to be examined and worthy of the subtitle? Send your one word answer the end a short sentence explaining why you chose it to radio AT ECONOMISTS DOT COM and we'll take a look at the mall choose the best one that we think has the most insight and wit and and one lucky listener will win a signed copy of the book and finally for years concrete and steel have been the foundation of buildings buildings in modern society but while the two materials helped to create strong structures bringing them together creates a problem known as concrete cancer her which can weaken the concrete now researchers from Deakin University in Melbourne Australia. Think they have found a solution. Pol Marchal Economists Innovation Editor. And he's joining the studio to talk about it. Hello Paul Again Paul tell us what is concrete cancer. What is the problem that causes? Well the problem is in order to reinforced concrete as buildings have got bigger and out skyscrapers. Tola you need to put something into the concrete and what's gone in has been instill. This is commonly code rebar reinforced steel concrete. Well Stale Russ and the problem is when it Russ usually from tiny tiny little cracks which let in a little bit of moisture water this expands Russ makes it get bigger that widen SA- crack and that causes the concrete to weaken and eventually fail. And if you look at some buildings you see these horrible brownish red streaks on the outside well let's the first signs of for some people call concrete cancer and so what are we going to do about it. Well you could use something besides stale. You can put stainless steel in. But that's really quite expensive. Oh you could use a non rusting rebound Carbon fibre is typical one or glass. Reinforced fiberglass coated. These are a bit fiddly. They can be more expensive and One of the difficulties the building trade has been around a long time and never used the materials have got so you know. Does this meet local. The building permits and regulations. So these things have not really taken over his alternative. So the industry's pretty much stuck with steel. Though it seems like things are about to change change because of researchers and builders and Australia yeah. The Australian researchers have done a couple of novel things one is that they using a combination of Reba so they make up the skeleton that you pull the concrete onto at using carbon fiber way you want to be really strong than fiberglass glass reinforced Plastic where he wants it to be cheaper and this is a more economical way of doing it and if managed to produce a structure. That's both lighter and stronger stronger. And they're going to use it to build a couple of bridges in Australia. Paul I love this idea but why tests are bridge. This is engaged long near Melbourne. And they won't these bridges. It lasts a long time and they wanted me to be made from sustainable materials and the researchers think these bridges could lost without any form of maintenance which ordinary steel reinforced concrete. Doesn eight they could lost one hundred years or so with no maintenance whatsoever. But what if they're wrong. Why tested on a bridge? A Abridge is a structure. You can manage. WOULD YOU WANNA test us on a skyscraper. I and find it doesn't work no purchase a manageable thing and also It's something that you know the pioneering something here so he wants to start with something small and on top of that not using your normal concrete they using a more sustainable version that This case uses flash more natural material because concord itself particularly when the cement that goes into context is a big producer of carbon album. Talk side and so they're trying to use a binding material that's green than traditional concrete. So it will be in more environmentally sustainable than Regular regular steel reinforced concrete. So what are the other uses that this technology can go towards well it could be potentially used for anything where you currently use astill especially if you can get the price within a level that would compete with steel reinforcement now. Some of that saving although the techniques may be more expensive has to begin with the fact that the building may sit there for a hundred years ago and not requiring maintenance can be very expensive especially after your habits crumbling concrete that could make it to Chico. Paul thank you very much. That's and that's all for this. This additional Davidge. While you're with US please. Rate US ON APPLE PODCASTS. Or wherever you

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