Round Table: Eating the Future
Technology has been a part of human eating habits since the first steak popped and snapped in the first fire. But now technical interventions into the chemical composition of food and its production are changing it from the ground up. Our current diet is composed of an engineered blend of sugars, fats, and salts; fried foods optimised for our taste buds. In the future, humans may concoct their own fantasy meals out of a blend of chemical elements without having to kill a single animal. From the global and environmental impact of unsustainable production practices to the nature of our societies to come, what we eat is changing who we are.
Who will control the technology, who will be allowed to use it, and who won’t? Will some of us soon live forever? Andrew Berardini speaks with three representatives from food technology’s avant-garde: Ryan Bethencourt, program director at the San Francisco-based biotech company and early-stage seed bank IndieBio; Todd Huffman, CEO of the digital pathology company 3Scan, also in San Francisco; and the Toronto-based “foresight strategist” Jayar La Fontaine.
Andrew Berardini: I’d like to start with the question of where the digitization of biology is heading: When every cell can be rendered as data, how will this change our concepts of the body, of medicine, of life?
Todd Huffman: I’ve been working on digitizing biology for a decade, and anticipate decades more. Today it’s being used mostly in research contexts, to understand and cure diseases. In the future we’ll be able to engineer biology using digital tools, much the way software is used in other engineering disciplines. When I started working on the technology stack that we’re building at 3Scan, the original purpose was to advance technology to allow us to reverse engineer the structure and function of human thought – an ambitious goal, I think, and one that may not be completed in my lifetime.
But when you’re developing a technology that has a big impact over a long period of time it’s best to look for intermediate goals that are more attainable. So, at 3Scan, I spend very little time looking at the structure and function of human thought. I spend most of my time looking at the structure and function of cancer, because cancer as a phenomenon is much simpler and much easier to understand than thought. Cancer is also a significant problem. There are people who I know and love who have died from it. If we had a better understanding of how cancer worked they might not have died.
Jayar La Fontaine: I think what’s at stake here are questions of how tech is forcing a certain kind of evolution. This gets us pretty existential about the essence of what it means to be human. I have been thinking a lot lately about the wisdom of evolution as it’s expressed in Orgel’s second rule: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” Thinking and worrying about it, frankly. I worry because innovators increasingly operate from the dangerous and misleading idea that evolution has given us a nature that renders us simply ill equipped to live correctly – or efficiently, or comfortably, or happily – in our postindustrial information age. The role of technology in this view is to correct for congenital human stupidity, or wickedness, or shortsightedness, and so forth, as it manifests in the modern world.
"Someday not too far off cultured meat may become an artisanal craft, kind of like micro brewed beer is today"
Andrew Berardini: How do the problems you see here work in practice?
Jayar La Fontaine: Let’s take an example from food innovation. Artificial sweeteners were designed to satisfy our love for the sugarcontaining foods that we would gorge on in the evolutionary landscape (because they were seasonal and therefore a “limited-time-only” offer). In the modern world, we can have glucose and fructose literally any time we want. Artificial sweeteners allowed us to indulge without the consequences of consistently spiking blood sugar, which can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. However, the problem with artifcial sweeteners is that the signaling value of sweetness in our body extends beyond the regulation of blood sugar. Every system that relies on the “honest signaling” of sweetness – the reliable signal that the body is receiving an infusion of sugars – is therefore also “duped.” Over time, the experience of sweetness without its substance slowly decouples it from downstream systems – neurological, endocrine, muscular, and so on – that are primed by its detection. Again, evolution is smarter than we are: we should expect biology to create systems that are highly interdependent and codetermining in ways that are perhaps difficult to anticipate.
Andrew Berardini: Ryan, you are working with a lot of food tech startups. What potential do you see in the field?
Ryan Bethencourt: Other than a few fairly simple (but powerful) innovations by companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, things haven’t changed much since our ancestors invented agriculture ten thousand plus years ago. Now biology as a technology is speeding up, some leading academics, like Joi Ito at MIT’s Media Lab feel that Moore’s law will enable and accelerate bio tech’s cost reduction past what we’ve seen in Moore’s Law, up to four or five times every eighteen months. This is driven by a host of innovations, lower costs and open hard ware, hacking/biohacking, a deeper understanding of biology, machine learning, and more private capital being deployed to solve some of our planet’s most intractable problems, from the Gates Foundation on. This means we’re about to see a Cambrian explosion in nonconventional uses of biology, especially in an area like food.
Andrew Berardini: Such as lab-grown meat? What is the state of that field?
Todd Huffman: There are companies in the tissue-culture field that are engineering the process to reduce and eliminate the use of animal derived components. Modern Meadow, for example, “develop(s) cultured animal products with no animal slaughter and much lower inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals.” The concept seems intuitive, but there are still deep technical innovations needed to turn tissue engineering into a global-scale nutrition source. Culturing cells requires growth factors, but growth factors derived from animal sources come with other biomolecules, such as antibodies. To get antibody-free growth factors, the tissue-culture industries have relied on fetal bovine calf serum – which comes from the blood of the fetus of a slaughtered cow. Globally there are about 700,000 liters collected per year. So finding another source of growth factors is a requirement before tissue culturing is feasible for global-scale nutrition.
Jayar La Fontaine: I do a lot of work for food companies who are actively trying to shed the legacy of industrial farming. Principally, of course, because it’s become a public relations disaster, but also because there is a growing sense that sustainable profits are best generated from a triple bottomline approach that takes into account benefits for the social and environmental world as well as for the company’s finances.
The limiter is always, of course, cost and consumer taste. The first is a problem that is becoming tractable. Labcultured meat, for example, while still exorbitantly expensive, is dropping in price by orders of magnitude as the technology for culturing meat improves: call it Moo’s Law. The second will take some more work, no doubt. But someday not too far off cultured meat may become an artisanal craft, kind of like micro brewed beer is today. One great place to see a fanciful vision of this future is The In Vitro Meat Cookbook (2014), which explores recipes for dozens of fictional dishes that could become a reality in a future of labgrown meat.
Andrew Berardini: I find these kinds of advancements bracing, but I worry about their ramifications. From the proprietary nature of these biological innovations to these things that are close enough to nature but far enough from real to give us the creeps, these developments touch upon the very essence of human nature.
Todd Huffman: One of the reasons, even imperatives, to generate synthetic tissues is to create a more sustainable planet for humans. Humans
are opportunistic scavengers: we scavenge occasional meat as an important part of our diet, and our biology reflects this. Look at our teeth and intestines: we’re not carnivores, who have short intestines and sharp teeth. Herbivores have long intestines, multiple stomachs, blunt teeth. We aren’t hunters either, eating fresh flesh: we’re scavengers eating semirotten animals who died of other causes. To this day we cook our meat to simulate the decomposition process. The drive to consume partially decomposed meat seems hardwired into the human neural circuitry of desire and satisfaction, and that drive might destroy the planet. Despite best efforts by many, vegetarianism hasn’t taken hold. Outside of India at 40 %, no other country breaks 13 % vegetarianism. Meat substitutes don’t push enough of the boxes, our minds aren’t fooled. One solution is to create meat synthetically, with technological approaches originally created for labs and medicine.
Jayar La Fontaine: There’s one perspective on human nature that is quite dangerous. It’s what psychologist Steven Pinker famously called the “blank slate”: the idea that humans are born as a kind of empty page upon which culture and technology inscribes rules and rituals, and that’s about it. That there really is no human nature worth remarking upon, that it’s so inconsequential that we can just “overwrite” it with whatever we see fit by building and deploying the right technologies. Since in this view human beings are “all environment and no inheritance”, they should be able to bend themselves around a new technology with little to no fuss and simply adapt to new realities. We’re losing a healthy sense of respect for the wis dom of our evolved nature when imagining and designing technolo gies that intercede upon it in fundamental ways. Perhaps we’ve never had a healthy respect.
Andrew Berardini: I was curious what you thought about where the trans-humanism project stands – the idea that we can enhance humanity through technological advancement.
"The future is owned by those who invent it; the inventors control what becomes reality."
Jayar La Fontaine: I’m not as bullish on transhumanism as I once was. I think there are significant elements in the movement which exhibit a disdain for the biological reality of human beings and whose most fervent wish is to altogether transcend biological “wetware” (a term that I’ve always felt was used in mild disparagement). I think this comes from their belief that our biology is dumb, or that it’s simply a nuisance. I don’t share these views.
My perspective on transhumanism is perhaps closer to that of neuroscientist Mark Changizi. In his book Harnessed (2011), Changizi makes a case that two of the most powerful and universal technologies available to humans – music and speech – are each the product of repurposing some of our inherited sensory and cognitive capabilities, with little additional patching required. In Changizi’s view, our first step should always be to appropriate what capabilities we already have before we start to plug in new ones which
might have unforeseen compatibility issues.
Todd Huffman: Transhumanism – the belief that humans can change “what it is to be human” – is often coopted by techno-shamans who make predictions about the future. Evolution isn’t simply a march forward, it’s a lot messier. Real transhumanists don’t make predictions, they make plans – and then follow them. I’m a cryonicist, but I don’t believe life extension or any related technology is inevitable. These realities will only come to be if I work on them.
Ryan Bethencourt: I too was discouraged by the idealism and fantasy thinking in large parts of the transhumanist movement. I felt there were too many dreamers and talkers and not enough doers. If you’re a transhumanist today, you should build, not talk: talk is cheap! I personally see myself as a nowist, not a futurist. My question is: What can we build today?
Andrew Berardini: And what do you think are some of transhumanism’s next breakthroughs? Not only in relation to food, but the nature of life and life extension? Where will cryonics head? Are we heading to a more complete integration of tech into biology? How far are we from the next human?
Jayar La Fontaine: The next human is always in a state of arriving; I think we can only recognize major mile stones like “the next human” in retrospect. That said, I think some of the big breakthroughs in human augmentation will come from pursuing the “functionalist” approach to understanding human thought. Functionalists believe that the mind is what the brain does, but that there’s nothing particularly special about the meat in your head that makes it the only possible substrate for a mind. Today, we are creating minds in other substrates – namely, silicon.
The more we understand the brain as an information processing device, the more attractive and less crazy ideas like cryonics begin to seem. If you can somehow preserve the nanostructure of a human brain, then I think it will start to make sense to people to “invest” in the longterm preservation of that organ, either through cryonics or plastination. That would be a really fundamental change in the way humans view themselves, which is every bit as transformative as giving humans some brand new ability.
"Science and capitalism can and will solve the problems of the future"
Andrew Berardini: But what about the creep factor of a lot of this tech? The possibility of machine sentience and meat grown in labs still gives people a chill.
Jayar La Fontaine: Integrating tech into biology makes people very squeamish. The first syringe was invented over 2,000 years ago and humans have yet to get over the “ick” factor. Interventions that “wire together” tech and bio will have to be very slick in order to circumvent this feeling of disgust. Something like the pill that [cyberpunk thriller writer] Ramez Naam envisioned in his Nexus trilogy might do it: a swallowable infusion of nanobots that essentially sets up an operating system in a human brain capable of communicating directly with other minds.
Andrew Berardini: Where do you think the evolution of food is going?
Ryan Bethencourt: We don’t have to wait to see where the future of food is going, it’s already here. The most exciting food technologies for me as a vegan are coming from the emerging post-animal bioeconomy – the technologies which will free our fellow sentients from the factory farms we’ve imprisoned them in. I think humanity will learn to embrace genetic engineering at a mass-scale equivalent to the embrace of personal computers and smartphones. In the same way that the Internet and smartphones put the world’s knowledge in the hands of all of humanity, genetic engineering and GMOs will put the second domestication of nature in the hands of all and will raise the global standard of living in a way that was previously impossible.
This isn’t wishful thinking. We have the technology to do this in our labs today, so it’s merely a distribution problem to enable all seven billion plus members of humanity to be able to culture any food they wish from sugar water and eat great nourishing food with a minimal environmental footprint, for under a dollar a day. My belief is that science and capitalism can and will solve the problems of the future.
Andrew Berardini: I can’t help but think of that Leonard Cohen lyric from Democracy: “the psychotic bitch ing that goes down in every kitchen, to determine who will serve and who will eat.” And the dark maxim from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas: „The weak are meat and the strong shall eat.” If food is power, who owns the future?
Todd Huffman: The future is owned by those who invent it; the inventors control what becomes reality. It’s important to me that the power is held and influenced by those who have long-range perspectives, as these technologies will have an impact on huge numbers of humans. Humans wielding technology have the power to destroy our planet or to make it amazing. We, the inventors, have a responsibility to create technology with compassion. It’s unclear who first stated that “the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members,” but I agree with them.
ANDREW BERARDINI mostly writes about art. He lives in Los Angeles.
TODD HUFFMAN is a transhumanist, cryonicist, and CEO of 3Scan, which he cofounded in 2011. One of the first humans to implant magnets in his body, Huffman has an intense nostalgia for the future and pursues technological solutions to a variety of problems. This has led to years of work on developing cryonics protocols, creating experimental sensory body modification, running projects for DARPA in Afghanistan, and assisting human rights activists against oppressive governments. He has also done work for the World Bank and various NGOs.
JAYAR LA FONTAINE is a technologist who helps organisations to develop their capacity for future thinking. Having led projects on everything from mental health strategy and wearable technology to the future of beauty, work, and play, he makes new technologies accessible to a larger world. Prior to working as a consultant, he worked at InteraXon, a startup building brainwave-sensing technology, and was a case manager and advocate for adults with brain injuries.
For more images go to: www.bistro-invito.com
RYAN BETHENCOURT has focused on disrupting the current status quo in biomedical and consumer biotech through entrepreneurship. Since co-founding Indiebio at the end of 2014, he and his team have funded 42 biotech startups. Previously, he helped catalyse the biohacker movement in Silicon Valley. Bethencourt has worked over the past decade in the bio-pharmaceutical industry to develop novel drugs with major biopharmas in the US, EU, and Japan. He regularly speaks on biotech innovation and writes for BioCoder, The Bold Italic, and Techonomy.