CARPE DATUM: How Autodesk Has Enabled the Hacking of Humans

By Ashley Hayes

The Singularity Cabal Series – Part 1

Autodesk makes software from which products are manufactured. Their CAD software helps makes things large and small (and is what you see in action if you have ever watched a home-transformation show that shows the re-design on a computer screen). It’s their software, along with 3D printers, that enables makers to turn their invention ideas into physical products, to transform strings or blobs of plastic into actual products.

Thanks to Andrew Hessel, a synthetic biologist with Singularity University, they also now make software to transform you. And me. And all of us.

We hear a lot about Gates, the Rockefellers, Klaus Schwab, etc. We also hear about Ray Kurzweil (but not as much as we should- more on that later). But there are so many players involved that we don’t hear about, and one of those is Andrew Hessel.

I learned about Andrew Hessel when an FBI futurist Marc Goodman (also of Singularity University, and the Future Crimes Institute) gave him a shout-out in the back of his 2015 book, Future Crimes, and credited him with providing the information Goodman discusses regarding some of the ways synthetic biology is used and manipulated.

Andrew Hessel’s TED talks and articles on hacking the human genome stopped me in my tracks. He thinks it’s ludicrous that we should credit the creation of living things (or the cells from which they are made) to God. And while there are many who may agree with him, it’s important–really important — that you understand what he’s saying when he says everything except the nearly impossible to believe, yet very real statement: “We’ve hacked God;” or, if you prefer, “We’ve determined how to not only hack the human body, but create it from scratch.”

His LinkedIn intro states: “… We’re creating a new relationship between humanity and nature, one that is founded on intention, not natural selection. This is why I found myself sharing Stewart Brand’s 1968 quote a lot: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

I have transcribed most of Andrew Hessel’s videos that remain, and will share more later. For now, the transcription summary below is from his 10/10/17 TedX San Francisco talk entitled The Next Software Revolution: Life.

“Cells- the foundation of every living thing on this planet. “
“Cells are manufacturing lipids….”
“[Cells are] the most powerful factories on the planet. “
“Cell biology is addicting. “
“Cells are so complex…We’ve only known about them for 400 years… We still ascribe their creation to deities. We still say of scientists, if they try to monkey with this cell, that they’re playing God. It’s remarkable and yet those cells are everywhere… We have 50 trillion cells in our own body. “

Cells are everywhere!

We’ve been de-convoluting the wiring for a very long time. [Graphic shown of the writing diagram of a euchariotic cell]”
“We can actually go down into the genetic code that makes…all this magic.”
[Graphic shown: Human Gerome Project]

Hessel further states:

The Human Genome Project was conceived in the 1980s, but started formally in 1990. It “officially” launched in 2000 and wrapped up in 2003, but never really stopped.

If we can read the code of a human being, we’ll know more about cancer, we’ll know more about health.

What could be more powerful than understanding the program that makes people?

Most of us have never even looked at this data. Now we end up with a technology that’s accelerating to generate this type of data.

The first genome was $3 billion. The second genome was $100 million. I just had my genome sequenced a month ago (2017) for under a thousand dollars.

This may be the only technology that has ever decreased in price and increased in performance so fast that most of us don’t use or care about.

This is remarkable. [We’re] not just reading genomes anymore. We now have tools to actually start writing genomes. And I don’t mean modifying genomes, modifying genomes the way it used to be done. Remember, we’ve been doing genetic engineering since the 1970s. Modifying genomes may mean adding in one nitrate or ability… [but] we actually have tools now that allow us to take electronic data, electronic code and turn it into genetic code; to actually write DNA. This is the ability to program cells, to program then from scratch, with intention, with atomic control.

This is really powerful stuff and I’ve been exploring this field ever since 2003 when we wrapped up the genome. It’s what led me to Autodesk. Autodesk makes design software. Ones and zeros. We don’t actually make physical products. We make design tools. And that’s because to make complex things like cars or buildings or cities, or to do visualization and simulation that is photorealistic like we use for movies, you need really, really powerful software tools, design tools, simulation tools. And I knew if it takes these types of tools to go and design a car, or a new phone, we’re definitely gonna need this type of tool to design a metabolic pathway, or design a cell, even a simple one.

I was really fortunate that in 2009, I got to meet the CEO and CGO of Autodesk at a function. I said to them, “I love what your tools do, but you only make dead stuff. Do you want to make living things, too? And instead of running, they said, “Yeah, that’s really cool; let’s look into that.” And they looked into it for almost three years and then they founded a Life Science group to do exactly that, and I joined that group right away.

[Side note: See for the article entitled 3D-Printing Living Skin: The Future of Skin Grafts? This article states: Researchers from the Rensselaar Institute have developed a way to 3D-print living skin, complete with blood vessels. The 3D-printed skin [was] seen to communicate and connect with the blood vessels of mice, transferring blood and nutrients. This was vital to prove the efficacy of the technology. The 3D-printed skin would actually stay alive once grafted.]

At 8:55 in the video, Andrew Hessel continues:

I was sitting in New York waiting for my HR paperwork (for Autodesk) to process and I thought, “Man, it’s time for another genome project.” [Graphic shown of HuffPost with Hessel’s March 14, 2012 article, Time for Another Genome Project?]

Since 2003 when the last one wrapped up, there was just dead silence about what we were going to do next and we’d gone into the world of OMEX. But what is OMEX? It’s just another data science. I thought, “Isn’t it time for another genome project where now we write a human genome rather than just read it? What possibilities could open up if we did that? And I don’t mean [just] make synthetic babies. I’m saying write the three billion base pairs of human genetic code. Accurately. Properly.

Put it into a cell and demonstrate that it works, runs the cell. It allows the cells to divide….

Nothing happened after I wrote that article. It was kind of dead air. That was 2012. But in 2015, shortly after I had just done this orientation at the White House about inspiring inventors to go out and invent, I end up at a meeting for something called “The Synthetic Yeast Project.” And this is actually the most sophisticated genetic engineering project on the planet.

They’re synthesizing a yeast genome, which is about 12 million base pairs of code. 16 chromosomes. (Yeasts are more like us than they are like bacteria.)

The project was going well and [they asked me] “What do you want to do next?” I said, “I think you should do the human genome.” (The young people were excited, the old ones aghast.)

The first Human Genome Project ignited my career. They saw the potential that this could just open doors.

I felt I had to push the boundaries. I had this new “ambassador” position (with the White House), so I felt I had to push. I called up two scientists: George Church. He’s famous in genetics. Super open, open mind. I said, “You were the leader of the first genome project. I nominate you to be the leader of the next genome project, to write a human genome.

It took about 30 minutes for him to say “Yes.” But he said the leader of the Yeast Genome Project that’s driving all this amazing genetic engineering needs to be a part of it. That guy is Dr. Jef Boeke. Jef is at NYU and he’s kind of the polar opposite of George: quiet, thoughtful. He wasn’t so sure that this was a good idea and that he wanted to attach his name to it. But he did after three months of thinking about it. He saw the value.

And I have to hand it to Nancy Kelley, a close friend who is a lawyer and really good about putting scientists together and working with them, for bringing Jef in….
We created a team that created a nucleus for the next Genome project: Two world-class scientists, one crazy catalyst and a lawyer that could do all the paperwork.

[It was] a complex project so we needed money. I went to see Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk at the time. I said, “Carl, you know I like to chase cars. I think I caught a train, and I need some help. I think we can get going with $250,000. That’s enough to bring scientists together.”

Carl said, “What else do you need?” I said, “I need your [contact list] because I’ve got to call a lot of people and ask for more money.” He said, “Done.” It was a seven-minute conversation.

We started writing a White Paper, calling other genetic scientists, editors and we organized a meeting in New York in May 2016 that got branded “secret.” We already knew that putting “human” in front of “genome” was going to be provacative… particularly when you add “synthesis.” But when you put “secret” in front of it. Oh my God, it’s so good.”

All of a sudden we got a hundred million page views and 200 different news sources. And suddenly everyone was talking about the next genome project. So cool! But it wasn’t really a secret. I wish it was. It was published in Science just a few days later. “The Genome Project-Write.”

I honestly thought, “In a million years [I would never have thought] I’d end up working with these eminent scientists, pushing them to do something like this, getting them to think about this.”

Everyone asks me, “Why?” “Why do this?” Come on! We can make human genomes all the time. Your genomes were made. We roll some dice in a bedroom. Boom! You’ve got a human genome. Why do we need to synthesize a human genome? The fact is, we don’t. But we are synthesizing viruses and bacteria and reprogramming cells…There’s an entire industry flourishing around this, and we don’t have things like standards, ethics, international collaboration. We don’t [in 2017] have the networks of scientists working together, the funding… and we weren’t communicating with the public well. Most people had never heard of synthetic biology. This is just an overview of some of the companies that are doing cell-programming and synthesis (15:15; graphic shown). There’s more than I can keep track of. It’s a growing industry worth billions… probably trillions in the future. We need the tools and the technology and the framework for doing this type of engineering because it’s possibly the most powerful and important technology humans have ever created.

CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, is already being used to do genetic surgeries on human embryos [as well as for] many other tasks.

[Note: A few of the trademarks for CRISPR technology include: “Hi-fi CRISPR, which are reagent kits. Reagents, namely DNA, RNA or vectors for use in biotechnology fields; reagents used in science for targeting mutations of DNA, namely DNA, RNA and vectors. Also, biotechnology formed genes for use in editing the genome of animals, mammalian cells, plant cells; another trademark is “CRISPR Collective,” for gene editing, genome engineering, gene therapy, transcriptional modulation, etc.]

Hessel continues:

But what happens when we can synthesize human genomes. Every time one of our cells divide, a human genome is written. We need to start thinking about this stuff now Today….

I’m not too worried because… my daughter- named Rosalind, after one of the scientists that was instrumental in discovering the DNA molecule, RoRo as we call her, was made in an IVF lab in New York. IVF 40 years ago was controversial. It’s not today. Today there [are] five million kids by IVF and I tell you, if they end up this way [graphic of smiling RoRo shown] naturally, or if we do a little genetic surgery and they end up this happy, or even if I upgraded her so she didn’t get things like cancer or could see in the dark, I’m a happy camper.

But there [are] darker visions, and if you’ve seen this movie [screenshot of unnamed movie shown]… it’s the best movie on bioengineering I’ve seen in 20 years. But here’s the truth: Biology is the only sustainable technology that we have. You don’t have to mow down the rainforest; you just make the rainforest work for you. It’s infinitely scaleable; it’s not going away. It’s been around for four billion years and it has a simple programming language that is universal.

We’re adding a billion people every 12 years. I think this is the technology that heals our world, meets all of our needs, gives us a better standard of living, cures our diseases.

The Genome Project-Write [includes, in 2017, over 200 scientists from around the world]. When you look back in 20 years, you’ll say, “He was right.”

Dare to know.


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