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Hannu Rajaniemi | On being a sci-fi author and biotech entrepreneur

about the episode

In this episode, we’re joined by Hannu Rajaniemi. Perhaps most famously known for his 2010 release, The Quantum Thief, Rajaniemi is settled firmly in both the science-fiction and the biotech startup worlds. Away from writing, Rajaniemi is the co-founder of Helix Nanotechnologies, a startup building the world's most advanced mRNA platform to create a unified interface to the immune system.

We’ll discuss his ideas on the impact of sci-fi on the real world and explore his views on the upcoming biotechnology wave, including gene editing and biohacking. We then address how these new technologies could be implemented and governed, before finally focusing on an idea that is, at present, only in sci-fi: the immune-computer interface.

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About the Scientist

Hannu Rajaniemi is a sci-fi author and biotech entrepreneur. Perhaps most famously known for his 2010 release, The Quantum Thief. Away from writing, Rajaniemi is the co-founder of Helix Nanotechnologies, a startup building the world's most advanced mRNA platform to create a unified interface to the immune system.

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DALL. · E 3 is an AI tool that generates images based on prompts.

Transcript

Beatrice Erkers Intro

Welcome to the Existential Hope podcast where we dive deep into the minds and visions of some of the world's most forward thinking individuals. I'm your host, Beatrice Erkers. I co-host this podcast along with Allison Duettmann. And today we're joined by Hannu Rajaniemi. Hannu is really a visionary in the realms of science fiction. And his work weaves together cutting edge science with human imagination. He is also a biotech startup entrepreneur. And I would say for those craving to dive deeper into the ideas and themes that we'll explore today, head over to existentialhope.com. There you'll find a full transcript of the conversation and a curated list of recommended resources for further exploration. Also, there's an art piece really visualising Hannu's positive vision of the future. Before we dive into the conversation, also a quick reminder to please sign up for the newsletter, the Hope Drop – it really is your gateway to staying updated with our latest episodes and insights and the Existential Hope community updates. So now without further ado, let's welcome Hannu Rajaniemi to the Existential Hope podcast.


Beatrice Erkers

Welcome to the Existential Hope podcast. And thank you so much Hannu Rajaniemi for being here with us. So Hannu you're a Finish-American science fiction author and biotech startup person. And I believe you're currently in California most of the time, but you come from Finland, and I know you've studied mathematical physics, and I believe you have a PhD in that. And I know they also write a lot of sci-fi, which is very exciting, especially given your background. Yeah, we wanted to have you on this podcast because we're familiar with your writing, especially the Quantum Thief, which I think is your most recognised book. And also, because there's a lot of interesting Existential Hope angles to discuss, I think, in relation to your work. And you were also a judge at our recent Existential Hope Transformative AI Institutions hackathon. Which is a mouthful of a title. But yeah, that was a very, very successful event. I think. So yeah. Welcome, so much, and thank you for being here. Would you like to just start with telling us about yourself, who are you? What are you working on? And how did you get started on this? – I think both your work in biotechnology and also your writing.

Hannu

Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you, Beatrice. And thank you for having me. Yeah, I think it's no coincidence in terms of what I ended up doing that I was born in Finland. I grew up in a very small town, close to the Arctic Circle. So the nights were a lot long and dark, especially in the winter, which meant it was very easy to see stars. So I think my interest in physics came first and foremost, from wanting to build starships, and figure out how to go to the stars, which also obviously meant I read a lot of science fiction. And the other thread was that because I was pretty much the nerdiest kid in town, I sometimes struggled to make friends, to have a social circle, to be accepted amongst my peers. I started running, able to role-playing games in my early teens, and that, that did ignite also a love for storytelling and world building which, which can be formed.. everything I did, it seems as well. And so primarily, I did pursue mathematics and physics immediately and ended up getting seduced by this mystery of how does mathematics work so well to describe the universe, did a PhD in string theory, studied in UK and my PhD at University of Edinburgh, and then got a little frustrated – both with myself, having I think, at the end of my PhD come up against the limits of my mathematical talents, and then string theory itself as a field didn't seem to, and still doesn't quite seem to, give us what we want in terms of unified theory of quantum gravity, and certainly doesn't tell us exactly how to build positive light spaceships. So I wanted to do something more impactful. And I started a company with another string theorist. So that was my previous company, where we set up business to solve mathematical problems for industry and did that for a number of years, with a team of about 10 other PhDs, and then simultaneously I had this void in my soul having lost contact with my role playing games community in Finland. So I wanted to do something creative, and I joined a local science fiction writers group or more broadly, a writers group that included people like Charley Strawson, more peripherally was also connected to Ken MacLeod and Ian banks occasionally and part of that same circle of writers and voices from the other gifted writers as well. And I started writing short stories as a creative outlet during my PhD and then that grew into  a writing career. Then, the mathematics startup had an unfortunate and, or at least end for me and my co-founder – we weren't very confidence in ourselves on the business side and voted for external CEO who then together with their life partner, essentially manoeuvred to take over the company and created in-conflict amongst the founding team. Stan, my co-founder and I ended up walking, just walking away after about three years of quite fairly extensive drama. 

Then, around the same time, there was a question later about, like, "when did I not feel optimistic", – and this was probably that moment. So I had this, there was this moment when the company fell apart. And then at the same time, my mom was already kind of really advanced stage of metastatic breast cancer. And I felt like I lost the future I had imagined and my mom's future was being cut very short – and I felt very powerless to do anything about it. But then, as I started to think about what to do next, I was quite naturally drawn to biology. 

I tried, I tried being – I did for a year also try being full time science fiction author, but I still crave that contact with more direct contact with cutting edge science and technology and also working on real life problems, besides inventing fictional worlds. But what I discovered was, of course, this tremendous explosion we had in capabilities, both in terms of reading and writing biology. And it had that vast expansive nature that the night sky had – this was this sort of incredible range of new possibilities that clearly was going to redefine what being human is in the next century. So I decided to work on that, came to get to Silicon Valley for the first time. I participated in the summer programme at Singularity University, which brought a lot of these thoughts and threads together. 

And then I ended up co-founding Helix Nanotechnologies, my current startup, as a result, and that's had its own kind of extended past. So, now, it does take up quite a lot of my time and energy. My partner in crime is Nickel, Irish Shenko, who did his PhD with George Church. And together we've focused on really building a kind of unified interface to the immune system using mRNA as the base layer. And that's now resulted in also some programmes about to enter the clinic in the next month or so and quite exciting work on creating (a scenario) and cancer vaccines and the other things we can talk about. But I do find that the startup work does intertwine still with writing. I do try to, to still keep writing, I have a new book Darkome coming out later this year. And then yeah, there's connections between the two sides that we can talk about, and I'm of course also a dad of two two year old – two years and five months old son, and to my wife, Donna, who...  that's another whole journey of dealing with the rapidly evolving complex system. That plays a big part in my life. 

Beatrice Erkers 

Yeah. Thank you so much. There's a lot to dive deeper into there. I think. I'll just start with asking you I think, continuing on the origin track – what was it like coming from Finland to Silicon Valley? And I think it's especially interesting to hear if you think, because we talk a lot about technology in this podcast often. And so what do you think, if there's a different way of looking at technology in the future? If you compare Finland to San Francisco? 

Hannu  

That's a great question. I think that, in terms of the experience of coming to the Bay Area, suddenly everyone had played Dungeons and Dragons. And was keen to nerd out about physics and computer science and all the other topics that I had grown up being obsessed with. And there's a fairly limited circle of people I could talk about them with. Things improved a little bit in the UK, but still it was there, there was an aspect of "coming to rejoin my tribe", and in some way and think that this is, of course, the draw of the Bay Area that brings all of like minded people thinking ambitious thoughts about the future together. In terms of the... of course Silicon Valley does have this underlying big ambition about the future, which I don't think is as present in Europe in general, and or in Finland, I think there isn't. So Finland, of course, is a very well-functioning, safe, modern Welfare Society. But inherent in that, in some sense, is an assumption that the future is going to look more or less similar to what it is today, that radical change is not going to happen. And therefore, there's some limits to the magnitude of things you should attempt. And there's even – no actually, I think that's also changing – Finland does have a very vibrant generation of startup founders. Slush is this big flagship of that community for Finland. So I think that's also changing. But certainly when I was growing up in Finland, it did feel like a more static set of assumptions about the future that we're going to build into this societal fabric. 

But in the Bay Area, there's this long lineage of future being very different, or new possibilities opening up – probably going back at least to the gold rush in the 19th century. And then, in the more modern era, the the original Silicon Valley and then then the joint, the double helix of computer science and psychedelics and kind of ideal human intelligence augmentation, or radically upgrading our our consciousness pharmacologically, which were practised by more or less the same people, or certainly at least a lot of overlap between those two communities: counterculture and computer science. Where you can trace you can look at individuals like Stuart Brand as being one of the connected products that that connective tissue, how he created the Bible for all that that countercultural era – the Whole Earth Catalogues. But then also () produced Doug Engelbart's "The Mother of all demos" in 1969 (1968), that really demonstrated and laid the foundations of how we interface with computers today. And the Bay Area has a long history of accepting the possibility and embracing the possibility that, not only is the world going to be different, but it has to be or we have to build a very different world and shake up traditional structures. And I feel there's periods where that seems to have been less present. So like when tech became really big, maybe some of that mindset has been diluted, but maybe it's now coming back in some form. That's the rise of AI feels like it's pushing people back into the weirder end of the spectrum. I'm finding that quite delightful, even though those that also has an undercurrent of fear and worry about that sort of level to which we can control or make these these new systems safe. 

So hey, that's a long, that's a long answer. But I think one – yeah, Bay Area has this long tradition of accepting a very radically different future. Whereas say, the Nordic countries have quite deliberately built this avis of supported scaffolds and support structures that are actually – should not be of course downplayed, of what an achievement that is, but it does lead to some inherent inertia, if you have something that works and changing values. Scary.

Beatrice Erkers 

Yeah, I think I share your experience. I'm also based in Sweden. And it's, I guess, that's traditional optimising more for well being. And it just makes you comfortable, and not so much pushing the boundaries, necessarily. I'd like to hear it, because it does sound like you would be very busy – because you're leading the biotech startup, and you're also doing this writing. What's a day in the life for you? How do you get all these things done? 

Hannu 

I had made a choice while back that I had to make some trade offs in terms of social life and energy level management and creative work and with a day job. And as a result, I now get up at 5am, my creative time is between five and seven in the morning before our son Casper wakes up. And so, that tends to be now the time I get to meditation and writing, and or other forms of creative work. And then caspar goes to preschool, I usually manage to get in some exercise at that point, and then it's on to whatever is needed to do a just be done on the startup side. And then that carries on until the evening, when we usually then try to have some kind of early dinner. And then I might do a little bit of work after Caspar goes to sleep, and then try to be in bed, ideally by 10pm. So it's fairly routine driven, at least when I'm at home in the Bay Area. When I come to Boston to work with our team here, it's a little less structured, but the ( ), and tremendously exciting, like rewarding. So there's a lot of structure and routines.

Beatrice Erkers 

Yeah, sounds like you need to dig out those structures and time to work on the creative part. I'd love to share a bit more about your sort of creative process. I think you're the first sci-fi writer we've had on the podcast, even though Existential Hope podcasts..., it's yeah, it's pretty obvious connection to me there. But yeah, could you tell us a little bit more about your creative process? If you have an idea – how do you actually make that into reality? How do you transition from an idea to a completed work?

Hannu 

Absolutely. So it does tend to vary a bit between stories and novels. And part of writing a novel usually is like some form of reinvention of what the process looks like. And but the broad patterns are that usually there is some initial image or there's some initial collision of two things. So there, there might be a thing that I get to curious about, or that evokes some kind of emotional response – a new idea of some kind, which might be I don't know, it might be something like, "what if vaccines could be infectious"? Or "what would be some interesting failure modes or "owning self driving cars" or things like that? So there's one element, but it has to be, it has to be combined with something, something emotional, something character driven. There has to be also some deep emotional truth or deep emotional question that idea triggers or amplifies, that creates some tension with it. So it's never just about I want to write about self driving cars and stuff. It is about I want to actually write about being unfaithful, or I want to write about being what is it like what happens in a marriage that goes wrong in a world where there are blockchain implemented marriage contracts and self driving cars; where there is like some  – that's I'm referring to an older story of mine called Unchained, which which you can check out  if you want.

But there needs to be this tension between deeply human and emotional, maybe not, not only in this case, it's not like directly from personal experience. But something universal that I can relate to myself on some level. And, then there's this process of, okay, let's explore that set of ideas, what are what connections does just trigger and I do quite a lot of mind mapping on – I have this giant sketchbook that I draw enormous mind maps in. And sometimes I also use little sticky notes to gather a lot of seen ideas, they might be facts, they might be research things, then I make giant clusters out of them. And I'm doing now some versions with these also digitally. And there's this sort of Mind Mapping an idea of clustering. For a short story especially, often out of those clusters, actual scenes emerge. And you can actually already derive an outline from that, for the story, what happens or characters emerge. And I might then spend a bit of time organising those thoughts in more detail, or because maybe because of the role playing game background, I write almost like character sheets for the main characters and unusually, discover something new about them in the process, and then it's figuring out what the flow of the story is like. 

And I like these days the physical snowflake method quite a lot, where you start  a one sentence summary of the story. And then you expand that to – you iterate on that. So I might write 20 or 30 versions of one sentence versions of the story. And then pick the one that I like, and expand that to four sentences, or like four paragraphs and up obviously, keep going from there, that usually gives me some idea what the story actually might end up being like. And then I write it. So, I write a first draft, I just write a quick first drafts. For short stories, I might write a drafted whole story and I actually like to write first drafts longhand. So I have a, actually like to work with pen and paper at that stage, because it's computers, I just tend to find, most of the time time quite distracting. And since I've spent so much time staring at screens anyway, that being –especially in that kind of morning, quiet window –, it's just nice not to just engage with digital things more than is it necessary. And I also find that there is a different feel, different cognitive feel, to writing longhand, or kind of continuous flows and on paper makes it, gives you some inherent momentum. And some ideas seem to pop up a little more naturally. And I've been typing these to me, and then I type it up. So then that's actually already like an editing process already. So I might change it quite a bit, as I not stick to the actual longhand version, as I put it into  digital form. And then I might do a round or two of edits on the story. 

So there's a heuristic, and I forget now who originated this quote, but the end writers said that there's three drafts: one draft is for you. The second draft is for the readers. And the third draft is for the haters. So basically, the first draft is for you to discover what the story is actually about. And that is almost universally to be true that I discovered by find out something new about the story that I didn't know going into just to writing it. And then the core themes then can be brought out and amplified in the second draft, and then the third draft is, okay, there's little inconsistencies, or fact-checking errors, "that doesn't quite work" or click, and then you need to fix those in the third drafts. And that I found to be fairly consistent also with novels. So for novels, I follow a similar process, but I'll just chapter by chapter basis, so I tried to at least, so I wouldn't necessarily longhand draft an entire novel at one go – some writers do, I think Neil Stevenson used to do this. But the, for me that kind of need to production is a chapter which is really like a short story. And I am actually probably fundamentally a short story writer. I like I really like the story as a form, but some stories require the reference book or novel.

Beatrice Erkers

Yeah, I feel like there were a lot of pretty concrete tips in there that I think for anyone who wants to get started on writing can do. I feel very inspired about the handwriting part actually, I'd like to try that.

Hannu 

I do want to emphasise that there's absolutely no right or wrong way to do this, and people do it in like many different ways. You don't have to outline, you don't have to grow mindmaps, you can just sit down and write if that's what worked for you – or whatever tools come naturally. Yeah, it's interesting to play around with the process and see what works for you.

Beatrice Erkers 

Yeah, whatever works. One thing that would be interesting also to discuss in relation to the work that you do in fiction writing would be thinking about like how science and technology interplays with that, do you believe that speculative fiction has the power to inspire real world scientific research? You have your background in mathematics and physics –do you think that's influenced your writing?

Hannu  

Starting with the second part – I think the way ( ) certainly influenced my writing is through and which is obviously why I'm also drawn to science fiction, is that mathematics really is this practice of assuming certain things to be true, and then driving rigorously their consequences. So, so, you start with a set of axioms and then you try to prove theorems that follow logically from those axioms. And writing a science fiction novel is a bit like that. So do you make certain assumptions about the world and then you try to be faithful to their logical consequences. So you, even though the assumptions might be scientifically impossible, which, I have, wrote a novel called Summerland, which is based on the assumption that some strange Victorian ideas about the afterlife being the forth dimension, turned out to be literally really true. And then that sort of world comes about as a result. Nevertheless, this science fictional approach is to embrace those things as given and then try to imagine what sort of world emerges as a result. But I think that that's kind of step by step principles thinking, which is very deep at the core of both mathematics and physics is certainly influenced me quite a lot beyond just this sort of subject matter itself, then. 

Yeah, in terms of the role, science fiction plays, and even more fundamentally, that even in science fiction, the great human superpower, is to believe in imaginary things. This is what allows us to build societies and collaborate and also like, aspire beyond what was possible. And actually, Michael Nielsen – you should totally have on the podcast at some point –, coined a term that I'll borrow from him, which he calls "hyper-entity", like an imaginary object that is so compelling that people actually want to build it. And science fiction certainly is a very good source of hyper entities. And there are some great historical examples. 

The one that I liked to mention which surprisingly little known is the atomic bomb, where HG Wells wrote a novel called "The World Set Free" , I forget now exactly the year it came out. But I think 1911 or 1914, that describes a suitcase sized, explosive device that can be dropped from an aeroplane that was powered by radioactivity, and destroy an entire city – and then called it the atomic bomb. And some years later, Leo Szilard, the great Hungarian physicist read this book, and actually his initial passion for atomic power was also to build spaceships – he wanted to figure out how to leave the solar system by the power source for ships that could do that. He was inspired by the radioactivity as a source of power directly from Wells' novel. And then he invented the chain reaction. And then together with Einstein, ( ) Roosevelt that kicked off the Manhattan Project, and later Szilard gave Wells credit for inspiring him and getting him to think about these topics. So that's quite an interesting example. Then some more modern ones – I think the get of ( ) Stephenson's "Snow Crash" has been quite widely acknowledged. Which I think Stephenson said himself ( ) given that Snow Crash. It is a quite a dystopian future, and somehow, there's this Twitter meme that's been going around the company announcements "at last, we have built the Torment Nexus from the novel" from this one oh, by the famous science fiction writer, "do not build the Torment Nexus". That does seem to be a bit of a bit of a pattern as well. 

In the case of the atomic bomb, the things that end up having an impact may not actually be the optimistic ones. But then I could go on there. The other, maybe a more positive example, is the Motorola flip phone and mobile phone directly inspired by the communicator in Star Trek. And honestly, that's also like a design debt that was directly acknowledged by the phone designer whose name now escapes me. But one interesting fact about that phone, early phone design, was that the Motorola also tried out a prototype film that split open the opposite way from the way that Star Trek communicator opens. And and nobody wanted to use it. So there were as the sort of started communicative, let's call them and immediately took off. So there is clearly some priming that happens through these imaginary objects in popular culture and how they shape what's what is to come. So I think, yeah, science fiction is a good source for are these "hyper entities" and directly inspires people to build specific technologies. And of course, part of the power is that it lets you see those things from the inside, like you actually get a glimpse of what it might be like to use them even if even if the details are wrong. It's still something it's captured and transferred about. The direct experience of what it might be what it might feel like to have a started communicator. What might it feel like to be being in a world where virtual reality is ubiquitous. So I think that fiction does tap also in these unique powers and running worlds simulations and simulations, either humans that have been held or entities that we all will have. 

And so yes, it is a powerful tool for shaping the future. I think the challenge is that it's not a very predictable process, I actually don't really think this can be done deliberately, or it's at least like I'm not aware of any examples where it has successfully been done deliberately. And the there was an attempt, Arizona State University had this programme called Project Hieroglyph. And I guess Neil Stevenson used the term Hieroglyph as what I was referring to as Nielsen's hyper entity – like a compelling science fictional (idea). And that project did produce an ontology where the goal was to engineer Hieroglyph – and I did not find them terribly compelling, or, somehow none of them ended up being very sticky. And I wonder if it's something about that, again, these are things that have to pop up from the collective unconscious, somehow the order that the... there's this organic process of hyper entity cultivation that is inherently unpredictable. 

And certainly the thing that I can point to, in my own work that has seemingly inspired others to try to build some form of it is, so in the Quantum Thief, there's this concept of "Gevulot" of privacy settings for reality, giving you very fine grained control over all the data that is recorded about you or captured about you. And there are a number of folks who have written papers on how this might work. And there are some blockchain schemes that have, that take inspiration, at least from Gevulot of them, I think there is actually one project that is actually literally called Gevulot. The way that came about was purely from storytelling considerations. So I actually did not, – I was aware of the debates around data privacy, and so on, brought( ) . 

But actually, what I wanted to do with the Quantum Thief was to write a detective story, setting it a post in the future. And therefore, the challenge there was, that in a society where with ubiquitous sensing with the vagus nerve technology, everything that happens would be recorded, possibly at the level of individual brains and thoughts and so on. So how on earth would any kind of detective story even make sense in that world? Or where would the conflict be? And the answer was to invent a society where privacy was more highly regarded as a value than preventing crime, and up to a point at least, and then obviously, that requires something infrastructure for, for the privacy aspect to be reinforced and built into everything. It's where Gevulot came from. And I think this is actually a relatively common pattern with sticky things in science fiction where – another Star Trek invention that doesn't exist in reality yet, so it has certainly inspired a lot of work in quantum teleportation and things like that is the transporter, and Gene Roddenberry invented the transporter because there was no budget to show a shuttle landing on a new planet in every episode of Star Trek. So I think it may be that the interesting hybrid entities, or science fiction artefacts actually come from some kind of constraint, or again, there's that sort of human or emotional aspect, or the type of – the narrative aspect that is needed to make it sticky to make it something that we can relate to also on an emotional level. And so it has emerged not just from technological speculation, but some kind of emotional relationship with what that looks. Its entirely possible that there could be more sophisticated forms of hyper entity engineering or Hieroglyph engineering. And I'm kind of curious where we get to with generative AI on those kinds of things. But my main caveats – that science fiction might shape the future, but not predictably. Or systematically. 

Beatrice Erkers 

Yeah, yes, it's very interesting, because oftentimes, when we have, like discussions, realpolitik discussions or something like that, on Existential Hope, oftentimes, people will say that we need more positive visions of the future in general. And just to get people excited about it, or at least not be scared about it, which I think is the case for many people these days, but, and also just to make it more concrete, because then people can get excited about what makes them excited and be willing to work on creating that future more. 

We are doing a thing like, a world building challenge right now with the Existential Hope project. And so that's one way of exploring it, ideally, trying to build out a world of a positive state in the future. We're playing with the year 2045. And trying to think of what's a version of this world where we've gotten to a state that's a positive vision of the future – not necessarily like a utopia or anything like that. But just like, things are looking pretty good. And so that's something that we're experimenting with now. The idea being that, oh, maybe we can use this to backcast and think of "how did we get to that positive vision of the future"? So yeah, I don't know. It's definitely something to play with. But I'm going to hand over to Allison now. Because, she is going to ask you more about like the concrete like Existential Hope questions. So I'm sure you'll get to dive into your vision of the future. So yeah, handing it over.

Allison Duettmann

Yeah, I learned so much. I had no idea about ( )  really happy and excited to dig into this more. I think, just a little bridge into this section, which is usually just "could you – you've talked about many different kinds of technological capabilities, nd you talked about many different connects societal changes and different tropes that are just like, inherently interesting to folks – could you perhaps if you draw on those or what other say you haven't mentioned yet, draw a picture of an Existential Hope future that you're currently excited about? Feel free to use something like ( )in there, or maybe even some of the immune computer interface stuff. Yeah. Could you like what's like a modern way to think about positive futures in your current setting? 

Hannu 

Yes, I guess maybe, to make this explicit and connected to also things I'm working on outside writing. So a novel that I finished writing recently is called Darkome. And so DARKOME as a genome, and it really deals with this question of "who should control our biology"? Who should mediate our ability to manipulate biologies? Should it be us? Should it be individuals? Should it be someone else? How do we do it safely?” These capabilities are emerging, almost inevitably and present incredible possibilities but also threads? And the kind of... so it's not necessarily... parts of it are meant to be certainly optimistic. But I think what I'm really interested in personally are complex pictures, like futures where there's some tension between two opposing forces, whether those are given forces or technological forces or philosophies or even more multipolar things where the answer isn't obvious, but the questions are interesting. 

And I think I do find the question of our relationship to biology and our sense of biological self, one of the most interesting ones that is really, I think, not discussed enough, where we are on the cusp of being able to re-engineer humans quite extensively, in terms of our fundamental biology. So there's the one part ( ) increased capability in medicine and engineering, and so term germline editing. But actually, what I find more exciting is this ability, not just to alter unborn children, but to actually somehow upgrade or also alter grownups, or to change their biology more transiently. And that's that, of course, leads us to to technologies like mRNA, which is making it possible to, not permanently, but for a period of time express almost any gene synthetic DNA in the human body that we can imagine. And right now, of course, we are in a world where mostly that kind of work is done in quite strict regulatory frameworks by large companies where you'd have to go through the drug development process to get anything deployed into humans, that process alone can take many years. 

But at the same time, what are these – a lot of the key technologies are becoming so democratised and available, that people are just starting to self experiment. And there's people like Jo Zayner, who have very publicly CRISPR himself on stage, etc, etc; and then on the more more inspiring side, there's also there are patients with rare genetic diseases whose families are taking things into their own hands and trying to develop DIY therapies. There are patient communities even testing DIY cancer vaccines. So it's not necessarily always going to be sort of just in the realm of tightly regulated capitalist organisations where this work will happen. And you can think about the nature of biology itself, our bodies, our immune systems are not kind of monolithic, centralised organisations. A kind of old, old idea is that any product is always going to be somehow isomorphic to the organisation that builds it. And if we want to essentially build a much more powerful biological tools, the organisations that built them might have to end up looking more like those biological systems more more decentralised, more fluid, wherever you can have individual ideas that he is exponentially amplified, and so on. 

So Darkome really is about the collision between the kind of very centralised – almost like Apple for biology vision, versus a sheer biological vision; and the tension between those two. And actually one thing I interestingly wasn't good. It surprised me a little bit was that while writing it I found myself becoming more sympathetic to the Apple vision also. Like, like my perspective shifted a little bit and that the debts that come into it originally very much from like the hardcore "let's do a free for all Libertarian biohacking world and it's going to be more appealing" – and to the main character, it's absolutely more appealing. So she has a genetic disease that she's trying to cure. And then getting more, getting deeper into this world, I realised, actually there are strong arguments you can make also for sort of both the garden ecosystem as well that aren't necessarily worse in all ways. So there's some synthesis that lies between those two that I'm curious to see emerge. This is one of our, I think one of the key questions for me, where I would obviously like to see, what did that that is also at the heart of the positive futures that I would be imagining currently. So how do we operate our biology? And who decides who can do it? And when? And how do we, how do we do it? And obviously, there are some concrete health problems that we should solve, there's 50% of us get cancer, we should solve that, the ageing, ageing, ageing is also pretty, pretty annoying –and we're getting closer to having the tools to to address that. 

But then there's actual sort of human enhancement and expanding what is possible for humans. And there, there's this sort of deep question of with also with AI, like, how do we, how do we turn to an AI more in to intelligence amplifiers, rather than autonomous agents. And one route which was highlighted and debated, discussed extensively at the Hackathon, as well was Brain-Computer Interfaces. And if we want mature brain computer interfaces, we're going to have to solve a whole host of biological problems, which at the core is actually "how do we get the immune system to accept foreign parts, both biological and technological parts?" – and really extend not only our cognitive self through coupling with AI, but also the biological cell. And this is why I've been so obsessed with the immune system, that, the immune system really defines the boundary between self and non self and maintains the homeostasis over this kind of complex collection of organisms that we are. So we need to, if we want to expand its boundaries, we need to start talking to it in a more high bandwidth fashion. And in the same way that we now have this – and again, going back actually to the lineage of transformative Bay Area thinking, there's this lineage of human intelligence augmentation going back to Engelbart and at least and before him, of the bicycle for the minds, of creating ways for us to interface with computers to augment our intelligence. I think we need to do the same for the immune system. And there are some deep analogies there. These are the two information processing systems that our bodies have that sense and act upon signals from the outside world. And of course, they themselves bring the immune system are both intimately interconnected, but the genome, the immune system, also in ways the guardian of the genome, that could be it, if we tried to add things in the genome, it'll recognise them as foreign. So we need some kind of immune-computer interface to get into, to at least expand the space of human possibilities. 

And then, I think to build that we probably need some organisational and even philosophical thinking and like I think you had a question about eucatastrophe and I think for me, this may or may not be related to immune-computer interfaces. But for me, a eucatastrophe would be the emergence of some kind of social movement or ideological movement or a religion maybe – like something that radically shifts our thinking in relation to both the natural world and ourselves and the things we're building towards some kind of more mutualistic view of flourishing. That... which sort of carries some kind of indigenous ideas, which wisdom probably has quite a lot to offer too. Because we do have 1000s of years of human history of human societies, living together and dealing with large complex systems in nature and interacting with them. And we are now ending up in a situation where there are these last systems that we've created ourselves that are getting increasingly sophisticated, and which we can't really control, yet our entire existence depends on.. increasingly depends on them. And to the point and which are like climate is doing such unpredictable and extreme things that we might actually have to start modifying our own biology just to be able to adapt, not just to other worlds, but to the Earth itself.

 Anyway, I think all that is to say, I think there is also social movements and activism in dimension to whatever positive future we may end up in, and I explore that a little bit in in Darkome, but I certainly don't necessarily have very concrete proposals on what we should do. But, I think we need to definitely explore. And I think, obviously, this was, again, the point of the hackathon, what are our organisational structures that can support positive transformation or flourishing? So those were very incoherent, but the questions are there. 

Allison Duettmann  

Yeah, actually three and then you can kind of decide where you want to take it. And one is, I think, just hacking back all the way to when you mentioned the bit on Apple versus freefall, especially about the biologic enhancements for example, – is there possibly also third way for example, the apple version of this biological, biology enhanced future would have, potentially power centralization problems, privacy problems, possibly. And then on the other hand, the free-for-all version of it will really have this kind of problem of maybe bio risk and small-kills-all scenarios like the obvious kind of like usual trope or like the juxtaposition. And could you imagine also a decentralised world in which you have, multipolar, privacy-preserving monitoring of different agents, monitoring what other folks are doing, and to just check that there's not like an incredible bio-risk coming along. That was one question. I don't know if you want to....

Hannu  

Yeah, no, absolutely. I think a multipolar version is very possible. And I think there's some kind of App Store version, where it's not all centralised. But do you have shared infrastructure that – and some with some safeguards, so if you do want to develop a therapy for you to rare disease, you can access a bio-Apple infrastructure and tools. And maybe they even support you in running clinical trials. So if you were again, I guess, one one technological element that you described about Darkom is that, on Apple side of things, there's a company called Aspis, that has built this mRNA wearable that everyone who's not part of the Darkome movement (which is the free for all the movement) has, so your immune system gets constantly updated against any new pathogens in the background. And suddenly, that happens. A slight spoiler actually –it's just like a little spoiler, but not a major spoiler, there's a point in the novel where Aspis then starts to consider opening that platform up to third party developers where you can then potentially use older infrastructure to develop the old therapy for a rare disease. And then you can run a virtual trial because everyone already has the device so you just need a laptop and internet to run a human clinical trial. And they obviously give you design tools and so on, but then that nevertheless still allows them to monitor whether anyone is doing anything truly malicious. So, and there's some real life science that those kinds of things might become possible. So Peter Marks who was one of the chief architects of Operation Warm Speed, and who is very forward thinking FDA official head of CBRE the bioloigcal division of the FDA has been proposing ideas around so called "platform technology" approvals that you might be able to, for example, leverage clumps of safety data for certain kinds of gene therapy vector from that has been already generated by others who are developing new therapies. And that way, you don't have to do that from scratch. And then similar for those more recently mRNA technology. So I think these kind of platform thinking might become actually more mainstream as our biological technologies advanced. ( )  will probably naturally end up in some kind of synthesis. Although I actually, it would just shift the Overton window it would be still interesting to see more biohacking happening. So it has not been, at least in the mainstream, very much discussed in the last few years. 

Allison Duettmann

Yeah, it's definitely been discussed in some subculture. How does this I guess, like this feature, in particular, like really interface with your work at Helix Nano? Is there any kind of like mutual inspiration either way? Or how does it show up in your everyday life?

Hannu   

No, this has now become, like the Darkome vision of this mRNA  wearable, has now become more or less a blueprint for what we're building – or more broadly, this idea of an immune intuitive interface and the fact that you can take our internal products, and you can map them to some of the key components that need to be built. And.. 

Allison Duettmann  

It's its own hyper-object? 

Hannu  

Yes, yes. Or like an internal hyper entity, I think we'll be a little more open about it and hope to inspire others, I think – to participate as well. But yeah, the hyper entity is becoming real.

Allison Duettmann 

And how could people participate in it? I guess they already like, connect and update or something, or anything else? 

Hannu 

So yeah. I think – to be very concrete about what we're doing currently: So there's some foundational mRNA technologies that we're building. So one, one layer is actually kind of almost like the transistor level of "how do we actually make mRNA chemically that is tolerated by the body better" to enable very rapid frequent dosing is constant updating, if you like. So we build out next generation mRNA chemistry that is actually going to be in humans for the first time in about a month, that enables radically higher and more frequent doses than the current mRNA technologies. 

Then we have various tools for more precisely directing or amplifying immune responses against key targets. And then we have some machine learning driven vaccine antigen design technologies, where we're basically trying to do things like overcome the reluctance of the immune system to attack certain kinds of targets that it treats as self. So like the opposite of describing earlier for brain-computer-interfaces, we might want the immune system to accept some new thing itself. But there's also a situation where we want it to go after something that it treats mistakenly treats as self: a cancer cell. So we really want to build next is closing the loop from being able to gather information about the immune system and what's happening – for example, in a patient's tumour – to then custom designing RNA vaccines that go off of that. So like a disassembled version in a way of that that mRNA immune chip. So one concrete example is cancer prevention. There's this technology called liquid biopsies, where you use sequencing to detect circulating tumour DNA in a patient's blood. And this might actually you might get a signal, even years before there is an actual developed tumour. And right now, there's no, no treatment, there's nothing really that can be done, except lifestyle changes at that point. But we want to be able to, at that point then, give that person an mRNA vaccine that is targeting whatever it has popped up. So that's the sort of one part that we're very interested in collaborating with others on how to – the liquid biopsy part, and gathering, also gathering information about the kind of full spectrum map of of the immune system. 

And then also like thinking about how these technologies could be integrated in, not necessarily yet, a wearable chip, but like are going to be moved closer to, to something that's combines a lot of these capabilities in ( ), maybe a microfluidic device. But I think the broader idea there is that just, I just want this hyper entity of immune- computer interface to be more known, because the more people think about it, the more  different angles we'll find and new forms that will emerge. 

And I think at the core of it is the idea that besides the brain, we have this other information processing organ that is very powerful. And which we can we now have tools to talk to in interesting ways in which we can augment just with technology, just like we can with with our brains, and we'll try to with Helix Nano create some example of that. I'd love to see 100 other efforts to build something like that.

Allison Duettmann

And if you think of perhaps like Darkome as like a more advanced future vision and then Helix Nano as one kind of project that is like working towards at least a future in which this is definitely becoming more of a prevalent reality concern for society. Then what's like, a five year out plan or something? Or what's it like a five year out capability that would make you feel like, okay, we're like, on track for building a future in which we have something like an immune-computer interface, whether or not you guys created or someone else – like what's an intermediate vision?

Hannu  

I think, yeah, that's a great question. I think like a five year timescale, like 100,000, that patient cancer prevention trial, where we demonstrate – we or others – demonstrate closing the loop from "here are 100,000 patients that we monitor for early signs of cancer, and then let's see if we can actually prevent them from getting an advanced tumour" to demonstrate this closing the loop off: reading information from the immune system, and then writing something back to help the immune system to deal with whatever has, has popped up. I think that would be a strong signal that we're on track for some sort of full spectrum immune-computer interface.

Allison Duettmann  

Love it! Great. Is there anything else and this could actually have Existential Hope that we didn't get to? I love, for example, when you mentioned both the kind of like "Unchained" – it reminded me a lot of work on like split-contracts, for example, which like, basically are half automated, but then have like an intermediate mediary arbitrator in the loop so that if people like, after a half of the automated contract, "I'm not quite sure anymore", about whether or not they, for example, want to continue the marriage, they can have like a human arbitrator come in. And then I think when you mentioned the I guess the Quantum Thief hacker privacy management, and like very flexible and individual privacy management, it also reminded me of the opposite trope of that – was also an transparent society with David Brin, where he went the opposite way: was just like "if we really have really good monitoring and mutual monitoring, then we just may end up in a society that doesn't care about privacy at all anymore". So I think it's really interesting to play with these ( ) in opposite ways. And I wonder if you just want to in the last few minutes that we have, throw another one into the ring that people can consider – and it's totally fine if you don't, there's other questions too. 

Hannu   

Something that –  I have not actually thought about privacy stuff recently that much – although obviously it's highly relevant. But to throw in a thought I've been or the thread I have been thinking about is the idea of AI sentience. So the... so what if, like, whenever we, what if we end up in a world where, to go to an extreme – turn up that volume to 11? Like, what if we end up in a world where we create uncountably many sentient beings? And what moral rights do they have? And how do we deal with that? And so I have been working on a short story related to that where any other kind of very positive future actually more broadly, but also climate change and other issues have been solved, that the next kind of frontier that coincides activism are sort of AI rights, where suddenly people realise that the these countless billions of agents that have been trained in vast simulations are effectively being tortured and dying and perishing in uncountable numbers – have some moral weights, and therefore, that entire exercise is stopped. And now, so now you end up with these billions of frozen minds in cold storage, and then then there's people who take them in as rescues. Have you try to give them for example, a physical body, or a simulated environment where they can try to – and often they are like very broken and dysfunctional – so there's, anyways, I'm not saying we're going to go there,  but I think I think you're spot on that interesting features do appear when you try to go to an extreme extrapolation of whatever trend is already visible. And in that sense, obviously, science fiction is also always about the present day on one hand and reflecting our present day fears and concerns. But I find the question of AI, our kind of relationships with AI and thinking about it from – not just from the stance of "there's this super powerful demon that we have to cage", but actually an entity that we might have to treat with some dignity and care. And that might lead to a better outcome anyway, when we might have to do that, unless we are willing to sacrifice some very kind of foundational principles around sentience and morality that we currently see.

Allison Duettmann

It's so interesting that you bring that up, because we had just had Jeff Sebo for a seminar and he's working on basically digital  minds and like the possible moral issues around them. And I think one thing that he pointed out, which is interesting is like, over-optimising versus under-optimising on assigning sentience or consciousness or agency – whatever is a relevant factor for moral patienthood: too early versus too-late. And he made this interesting parallel that you also drew to  animals just now. For animals, we should probably aim for false positive to some extent, or like one could think that – just because historically, we haven't been really good at distinguishing and assigning sentience and consciousness to animal minds where it may have mattered. And so we can assume that we may have a negative bias towards that here. And so maybe we should over optimise on  understanding it earlier. But on the other hand, there may be so many of them, and they may also be like, so like rich in their conscious experience that like we may get totally Pascal's Wager-ed if we do. And they may also, because they are different to animals, they have natural language – they can tell us that they're conscious, and they may trick us in different ways that don't actually exemplify actually, like whether or not they're conscious. And so anyway, there's like concerns either way. But then he also thought, maybe AI companies are not incentivized to have their large language models tell you whether or not they're conscious, because that may shut them down earlier. Anyway, that lots of... a whole host of factors that I think we have to wade into now. And there is really practical work on this being done already in terms of like evalsfor-sentience, and so forth. That's definitely something that but it's not even that sci-fi  anymore. Like we are starting to think about this now. And we certainly have to. 

Okay, we have to wrap it up, unfortunately. I could go on this for days or days on end. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. Do you want to leave us with any final words about how people can find out more about your work? And if they're interested? Thank you so much. This was really inspiring.

Hannu  

Thank you so much. Thank you. This is a great conversation. Yeah. Easiest way to find out about my work is on twitter– I'm hannu on Twitter H-A-N-N-U, just like my first name. And yeah, I'll be posting some stuff on the topics we talked about quite soon.

Allison Duettmann

I strongly recommend following him. You have a really wonderful Twitter. It's – full joy. Thank you so much. And yeah, I hope to welcome you sometime soon.

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