Throughout October, I moderated a series of discussions on “game-changing technologies” that examined their significance and role in the Japan-U.S. alliance. The conversations were wide-ranging and eye-opening, as participants included some of the sharpest experts from the two countries’ public and private sectors. (The three public panels will be online — check the Pacific Forum website — when they are edited.)

Especially riveting was the discussion of biotechnology. It is perhaps the least understood of the game-changing technologies despite being one of the most important. When most people think about biotech, drugs, genes or some such come to mind. That’s old think. Picture instead biological advances combined with other technologies — AI, nanotech or robotics. This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry reflected this new reality. It was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, one of gene technology’s most important tools. As the Nobel committee explained, these scissors allow “researchers to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.”

Difficult as it is to understand this field now, it will get exponentially harder as researchers incorporate other technologies to drive innovation. Sarah Sewall and Michael Vickers, two former U.S. defense officials now working to fund startups, write that “the evolution of biotechnology is perhaps the nation’s most consequential technology opportunity and risk … synthetic biology will literally transform our world.”

As usual, the easiest place to start is the economic dimension of biotech. A study published earlier this year by the McKinsey Global Institute, a think tank affiliated with the international consultancy, estimated that just 400 “use cases” of biological applications could in 10-20 years generate $2 trillion to $4 trillion in direct economic gains. Significantly, more than half those gains come from fields outside health care, such as agriculture or consumer goods. In an attempt to get traction in one area, my organization, the Center for Rule Making Strategies, has established a study group to explore cell resource agriculture, a process that produces what is sometimes dismissed as “fake meat.” That’s unfair to a technology that has the potential to revolutionize food security.

Those products could also help reduce environmental pressure on the planet. The McKinsey team estimated that biological means could be used to produce as much as 60% of the physical inputs to the global economy. About one-third of those inputs are biological materials such as wood, while the remainder isn’t biological but could be produced using new biological processes, like bioplastics. McKinsey reckons that the direct applications they studied could by 2050 cut average annual man-made greenhouse-gas emissions by 7% to 9% from 2018 levels.

Another possible application melds genetics and information processing. Researchers are studying the possibility of using biology rather than silicon to store data. Since DNA is about 1 million times more dense than hard-disk storage, it is estimated that 1 kg of raw DNA could store all the world’s data. Processing speeds are worlds apart: Compared to neurons, a Mac’s speed moves like a snail. Moreover, biological systems are self-replicating: Biological computers could replicate and assemble themselves. Commercializing those capabilities is a distant prospect but they are being explored today.

As with all emerging technologies, there is a geopolitical dimension. While the U.S. is the world leader in this field, China is catching up. Beijing identified biotech as a national priority in the 1980s; and according to some estimates total investment by all levels of Chinese government in life sciences R&D exceeds $100 billion. That isn’t reason to hyperventilate — yet. China is playing catch-up and there are questions about the quality of that work. Still, complacency must be avoided. National security officials agree with Tara O’Toole, executive at In-Q-Tel, the U.S. government’s national security venture capital fund, who last year told Congress that China “intends to own the biorevolution … and they are building the infrastructure, the talent pipeline, the regulatory system and the financial system they need to do that.”

Japan is playing catch-up too. The government established a Biotechnology Strategy Council in 2002, which produced a Biotechnology Strategy Outline that year and “Dream BT Japan” in 2008. Those initiatives yielded some results, but the Integrated Innovation Strategy 2018 (IIS) dismissed those efforts for “leaving Japan practically strategy less.” The IIS and the Growth Strategy 2018 both identified bioscience and biotechnology as priorities and a Bioeconomy Strategy was drafted in 2019 that “seeks to “establish the world’s leading bioeconomy society” by 2030.

There are security concerns. Biological capabilities are simplifying — in many cases they are DIY (do it yourself) — and proliferating. Margaret Kosal, who focuses on technology issues at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, warns that: “Advanced technology is no longer the domain of the few. Biological weapons are perceived as (and in some cases, arguably are) relatively cheap and easier to produce, more widely available, and within the capabilities of an increasingly large number of people with access to minimal technical skills and equipment and more concealable dual-use technologies, especially when compared to obstacles in attaining and developing nuclear weapons.” She argues that the U.S. and Japan (and other partners) must develop new models to control the proliferation of these technologies and deter their use for nefarious purposes. Central to the success of any such effort will be inculcating an awareness and responsibility among scientists so that they are attuned to the potential misuse of their work.

This moral imperative is part of a larger discussion about the future of biotechnology and an issue that Jamie Metzl has embraced with fervor. Metzl served on the U.S. National Security Council, at the State Department and at the United Nations, and turned to biosecurity issues because they were largely ignored. He wrote novels that explored the promise and peril of biotech but realized that the public needed to understand that his speculations were not distant fantasies but were instead rapidly approaching futures.

In “Hacking Darwin,” he argues that we are close to mastering genetic code, which will allow us to transition “from generalized healthcare based on population averages to precision healthcare based on each person’s individual biology.” The ability to read individual DNA will permit genetic modification — the selection of particular traits for offspring — that “is going to terrify people.” Of course, every parent wants to ensure that their children are healthy, but advances in biotech will allow them to pick height, eye color and even personality traits. (Metzl adds that this will mean that we move away from using sex as the primary way of conceiving children. Think about that for a minute.)

Those will be momentous choices. Even more wrenching is the prospect that those options will not be available to all. Metzl warns that if these technologies are unevenly adopted by different societies, “we run the very real risk of bifurcating our communities, bifurcating the world into the genetic haves and have-nots.”

We are confronting some of these issues as the world tries to address the COVID-19 pandemic and struggles to develop and equitably distribute a vaccine. The results are not encouraging. It may prove easier to prevent the misuse of biotechnology, although the record of strategic trade controls is checkered as well. The international cooperation that is essential to success is not facilitated by the name calling that now taints diplomacy. The U.S. is also trying to restrict the proliferation of new biotechnologies by labeling them as “emerging and foundational technologies,” which can then be tightly controlled because they are a national security interest. That however threatens the international collaboration that many innovators see as essential to success.

Emerging technology poses new and novel questions. Unfortunately, the time to answer them is growing short.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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