Stuff Brexit – this is far more important

Nick O'Connor

As big as Brexit is, there’s a much, much more important story unfolding in the financial world right now.

In fact it blows Brexit out of the water.

Wow now! I know that’s not particularly “on message” these days. But bear with me.

It seems like every major news outlet has turned the Brexit coverage up to 11 over the past week. It’s hard to turn around without bumping into another breaking news story. Rumour has it either The Guardian or The Telegraph will start live blogging the movements of Jean-Claude Junker’s left eyebrow in the coming days.

A joke, of course. Though I would like to see how popular that blog would be at a time like this. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t take Brexit seriously. We should. It’s a serious issue worthy of some of your time.

But it’s not so important you should let it blind you to all else that moves.

There is another world out there besides what’s happening in Brussels and Westminster. Brexit won’t stop innovation or progress; it won’t hold back the latest breakthroughs in medicine and engineering; it won’t stop radical new technologies changing the world, making our lives better and making investors extraordinary returns.

It won’t stop it, but it might stop you hearing about it. Let’s face it: researchers could have cured cancer or built a fully functioning AI last Friday, and it would have passed like a ship in the night here in Britain. Unless the ship had migrants on it. But I digress.

A case in point. Last week The Economist hit the shelves all over the world. It was an issue dedicated to the development of artificial intelligence.

This is a huge story that isn’t going anywhere. As computing power and our ability to understand exactly what “intelligence” is increases we’re going to see incredible changes in the way we interact with machines. They’ll work for us and with us. And they’ll look after us – in ten years’ time your doctor could essentially be an AI (the technology for AIs to diagnose illness more accurately than human doctors already exists).

If you’re interested, pick up a copy of the story. Although that’s hard to do in Britain: The Economist ran a different story here – on Brexit.

I don’t dispute that as an editorial decision. But it just brings my point into sharper relief – there’s another world out there that things like Brexit blind us to.

The development of artificial intelligence is part of this world. So is genetic editing – the ability to rewrite the rules of the world on a genetic level. The same goes for solar and battery technology, which could utterly transform the way we power the world. Then you have virtual reality, robotics quantum computing. These are technological trends that are developing at a rapid rate and are virtually guaranteed to completely change the way we live our lives.

This stuff is just as challenging as Brexit. It requires thought and quiet contemplation – first to understand it, then to figure out how it will change your life (and the world), and then to position your money to take advantage. That isn’t easy. But the rewards of doing so are tremendous.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a letter I recently wrote to readers of Exponential Investor with you. It details the development of a technology that I believe will turn the way we live our lives on its head in the next decade.

It’s just as important – and controversial – as Brexit. And that’s the point. Don’t let Brexit obscure your view of the rest of the world.

Or maybe you disagree. If so, go check that blog of Junker’s eyebrow out. Let me know in ten years whether it was worth it.

Here’s my original piece to Exponential Investor readers…

Who needs God?

Fair warning: today’s letter is controversial. You may not agree with everything you read. In fact, depending on your outlook you’ll probably think what we’re about to discuss is one of the greatest achievements of all time… or an abomination.

You’ve been warned.

See, as always today’s letter is about technology. But unusually, it’s just as much about morality. Generally, moral issues lie outside the scope of our humble e-letter. But in this case it’s unavoidable.

Here’s why. On one side of this issue, we have the single biggest killer in the history of humanity… a disease that could have killed half of all the humans ever to have lived on the planet.

On the other side is a group of scientists who believe they can stop it for good.

Sounds cut and dry, right?

Not so fast. Because to eradicate this disease, scientists (and their backers, one of whom happens to be Bill Gates) plan to wipe out an entire species of animals. And they plan to do so in a way that would have been impossible even a couple of years ago.

We’ll come to right and wrong in a second. First, let’s look at exactly what’s happening…

Killing a killer

Let’s take this from the beginning.

The disease that has killed more people than any other in human history is malaria. In fact, according to Rosemary Drisdelle, author of Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests, malaria could have accounted for – on average – more than five million deaths a year for thousands of years.

Add those deaths up and you reach a pretty grim conclusion: malaria may well have been responsible for 50% of all deaths in human history. In her own words: “Did malaria kill between 53 and 54 billion of the 96 billion who lived before 1900? I’m neither an epidemiologist nor a statistician… We’ll never know for sure, but based on my reading I think it’s possible.”

And it still kills huge numbers of people today. According to UNICEF figures, it kills one million people every year. A large number of them are children – 3,000 a day. And 40% of the world’s population live in areas at risk of malaria. Fighting it is easily one of the greatest challenges facing the world.

But how do you fight it? With drugs? Better healthcare? Netting for every bed in an at risk area?

That’s one way of thinking about it. But advances in technology have opened another way of doing things. You can go for the source – the mosquitos that spread the disease.


Well, therein lies the controversy. Because there’s now a fairly advanced movement under way to edit the genetics of mosquitos so that their offspring become sterile. Sterile offspring could mean no more mosquitos. No more mosquitos could mean the end of malaria.

MIT Technology Review had the story last week:

I saw such an invention at Imperial College London. A student led me through a steel door, under a powerful gust of air, and into a humid room heated to 83 °F. Behind glass, mosquitoes clung to the sides of small cages covered in white netting. A warning sign read, “THIS CUBICLE HOUSES GENE DRIVE GM MOSQUITOES.” It went on to caution that the insects’ DNA contains a genetic element that has “a capacity to spread” at a “disproportionately high” rate.

A gene drive is an artificial “selfish” gene capable of forcing itself into 99 percent of an organism’s offspring instead of the usual half. And because this particular gene causes female mosquitoes to become sterile, within about 11 generations—or in about one year—its spread would doom any population of mosquitoes. If released into the field, the technology could bring about the extinction of malaria mosquitoes and, possibly, cease transmission of the disease.

Is it right for humans to decide what lives and what dies? To a certain extent, we do already. We’ve hunted countless species out of existence.

But to do it from the laboratory – to alter the DNA of another living being with the intention of wiping it from the face of the earth – that’s different. That alone is enough to make the head hurt. But then you have to factor in the fact that the goal is to save millions upon millions of people from a deadly disease.

It’s a moral conundrum. But before we disappear too far down that particular rabbit hole, let’s hear from one of the people who helped make genetic editing possible – Professor George Church, co-developer of the CRISPR gene editing technology. We spoke to him personally about gene editing last month. As he told us:
Any method of gene editing has some similarity to previous genetic engineering tools in what it can be applied to. Those applications include agriculture – plants and animals and to some extent microorganisms like fungi. It can be used for curing genetic diseases. It can be used for fighting infections, just like its original use for cutting viruses. It already is in use for fighting leukaemia and HIV/Aids. I’m being broad here, talking about genome editing – not just CRISPR.

It can be used for xenotransplantations – moving organs from pigs to humans – and making those pigs virus-resistant, or making a variety of things virus-resistant.

Finally, it can be used for gene drives, where you can engineer wild populations at low cost and high precision to fight diseases like malaria, dengue, Lyme disease and so on.

They say with great power comes great responsibility. A quick Google search of that term tells me it originates either during the French Revolution or from a Spiderman comic. Let’s ignore its origin for now and concentrate on its meaning, or rather the fact that it’s a perfect description of the debate around gene editing.

The ability to alter the genetic makeup of something – plant, animal, human – gives us the power to remake the world as we want it to be. Or we think we want it to be. That’s extraordinary power. The power of the gods. No generation before ours has had this ability. And using it to fight disease and save lives seems a good way of using it. But it’s fraught with moral ambiguity – especially when we’re using it to wipe whole species out.

It’s an issue that people like Hadyn Parry, CEO of Oxitec (a company involved in similar work) must have to grapple with. At least, I would assume they do. We spoke to Parry himself earlier in the year. He spoke in detail about how the process works:
We will bring a colony of that mosquito into our facility. We will rear it, feed it, maintain and grow the colony. We will then take the eggs and inject them with a genetic construct. That genetic construct has different components to it.

The first component is making sure the offspring don’t survive. We are creating a colony of insects which will all have a modified gene – a gene which will overproduce an innocuous protein so that as the mosquito grows, it disrupts the cell.

If you were to come to our factory, you would see cages of mosquitoes producing eggs, those eggs being put into multiple trays where they hatch out into larvae and then pupae, and the pupae being taken and put into dispensing devices when they are adult.

Only female mosquitoes bite you. Males don’t bite, and you can never be infected by one. We only want to release the males, because we don’t want to release mosquitoes that bite people or spread disease. So we sort the male and the female, and do that physically, which is much simpler than it sounds: when they’re pupae, the male and the female pupae are very different sizes, so you can sort them with a sieve.

We put the males into releasing devices. A transit truck comes to the door of the factory, loads up lots of these pots of mosquitoes, and then goes off into a town and releases the males.

There’s another element that we introduce right from the word go: a fluorescent protein. When you actually look at the larvae under a special wave-length light, they will appear red. The reason for that is that we want to be able to track them. We want to be able to release them into town, know how many to release, where to release, and if we need to release more or less.

So we’ll release mosquitoes in town, and have little traps that mosquitoes use for reproduction. We’ll look at the larvae in them. After two or three weeks of releases, 20 or 30 percent of the larvae might be red, in which case 20 or 30 percent of those larvae had a male parent which was an Oxitec mosquito. After another few weeks, it might be 30 or 40 percent, then 50 percent. You have this built-in monitoring system so that you can see what you’re doing, how successful you’re being. If you’re releasing too many mosquitoes, you’re wasting money, so you can reduce the number. If you’re not releasing enough, you can increase the number.

You want to be able to use this system not only in sophisticated parts of the world, but also in unsophisticated ones. You want something very economical to produce.

There you have it. As I said earlier: on one side of this issue, we have the single biggest killer in the history of humanity… a disease that could have killed half of all the humans ever to have lived on the planet.

On the other side is a group of scientists who believe they can stop it for good.

But who’s in the right?

I’ll tell you what I think before I open the floor. I think that with the correct safeguards, this is a worthwhile exercise. It could save millions of lives. I think that’s worth trying to do. But really, I think it serves to underline both the enormous potential and inherent pitfalls of gene editing. We have the power to remake the world. What kind of world do we want to make?

Category: Investing in Technology

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