In this thrilling episode of the podcast, we sit down with the brilliant Lee Cronin, an acclaimed scientist and researcher in the field of chemical synthesis and molecular self-assembly. With his groundbreaking work at the forefront of synthetic chemistry, Lee Cronin offers us an unparalleled glimpse into the world of creating new forms of matter and pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration.
We delve into the intricacies of his research, discussing the latest advancements in his field and exploring the possibilities for creating entirely new forms of matter. From the exciting potential for self-replicating molecules to the challenges of programming artificial intelligence into matter, Lee Cronin offers us a window into a world that is both fascinating and terrifying.
With his infectious enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject matter, Lee Cronin takes us on a journey through the cutting-edge of synthetic chemistry, revealing the incredible possibilities that lie ahead for the future of science. So join us as we embark on this captivating adventure with Lee Cronin and explore the frontiers of scientific discovery.
Lee Cronin is a Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, with a passion for science and technology since childhood. With a team that has raised over $35M in grants, he's exploring the creation of artificial life forms, searching for alien life, and constructing chemical computers.
This piece was created by Aron Mill, using Midjourney, a machine learning model created to produce images from language descriptions. Aron is a researcher at the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED). Through his work he aims to contribute to civilizational resilience against Global Catastrophic Risks. He is interested in flourishing future scenarios in which we have traversed the precipice of existential risks and recently began exploring these themes through art and hopeful narratives.
Allison Duettmann: Welcome everyone to Foresight’s Existential Hope Podcast! This is a little bit of an unusual podcast in which we invite our much-appreciated Senior Fellows and other special guests. We do not just ask them the normal questions of what they are working on and overall scientific progress. Instead, we invite these few special folks to actually figure out what it would look like to push toward positive futures. There are a few people who work on really outstanding projects in this area. One of them is Lee, who I think needs very little introduction in general.
I think you have made quite a name for yourself! Especially recently on a bunch of different podcasts. I encourage you all to check out Lex Fridman’s podcast with Lee. I think you are the only person who has made it on there twice in a row, within the span of a month or two, alongside Sara Walker. You have tackled everything from chemputing, which I hope we get to speak about some more today as it is really your forte, all the way to questions about the origins of life and long term futures on Mars. So, I am sure you have a lot to say on a variety of different topics. Thank you so much for joining.
Most people here probably know you in a Foresight context. You work on chemputing, which I encourage people to check out that seminar as well if they are into the technical aspect. I recently talked about that and showed a little video of you speaking on this at a breakthrough computing series that I spoke at, and people were rather stunned by what you were working on there, so I hope we get into that a bit. Generally, you are quite outspoken, so I do not think we will run out of topics today. Thank you so much for joining and all the work that you do. Maybe as an introduction you can bring us up to speed on what you are working on and what got you started. Your life story in two minutes - a difficult question, but we will start there.
Lee Cronin: A life story in three minutes. I am a chemist. When I grew up, I was just interested in reality, I suppose. I was very confused most of my childhood life about how things worked, so I took everything apart. I built my first computer when I was 8 years old, but it did not work. Also, I got a chemistry set at the same time, and I remember coding this chemistry set and wondering, which is what I have been doing for the last 40 years or so - trying to code chemistry. Further, when I became an academic in Moscow, they were very open-minded. So, I brought people into my lab who were chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. Having those people around allowed me to create things with them. As such, I invented the concept of the chemputer in 2012 to try and make an origin of life experiment that was expandable. However, I could not get money for that. Instead, I turned it into a drug discovery rig, and I got money for that.
From there, I was then able to build all of the chemputing architectures. I built a company to go with that, and I have the origin of my stuff going. However, the problem with the origin of life is that everyone is arguing about it because they think they want to do something special. Actually, you have to find out new things and explore new things, so I have developed a new theory of life, which appears to be holding out. It is about the intrinsic complexity of reality in molecules. So, I’ve got a complexity detector, technology of the origin of life, and a technology for building robots for drug discovery. I then wondered if I could flip it the other way around and use chemistry for computation. That is the other bit that was mentioned. We are trying to differentiate chemistry solutions to do the computation, which may be extended into a new type of consciousness one day, who knows? That’s about three minutes, so I will stop there for now.
Allison Duettmann: Oh man, okay we have so many different keywords now to dive into. I took notes so we will hit them all. Maybe, if you wanted to orient someone entering your field or fields, could you give them a bird's eye view of what is even involved in the areas you are working on? I know you touched upon a few things already. Basically, as someone new entering that space, who may not have a deep understanding of chemistry already, what is kind of the lay of the land?
Lee Cronin: Oh my gosh. I think I would start with complex systems theory. I would also try to point people to a dead planet. Think about Mars and the Moon, and think about what we need to do to turn a planet into a living system. It was not me who said this, but there was a famous machine-learning person that says if you throw photons at a planet for a few billion years, it emits a Tesla Roadster. Understanding now the planet, they send photons into evolution. But yeah, I would probably say complex theory and evolutionary theory probably would be the place to start, with a healthy dose of computer science, a little bit of engineering, and a little bit of chemistry. Basically, I try and make things to understand them, so I would just encourage people to have a fairly playful engineering approach to these problems, rather than dressing them up into grand concepts no one understands.
Allison Duettmann: Great, I think that is good advice for life. If you think about how you came to where you currently are, have there been any fundamental paradigm shifts? Also, have you contributed to any? I know you just mentioned the origins of life project was hard to get funding for. Do you think you could get funding for it now? Have you dressed it up under another trojan horse? Have there been any fundamental shifts, where you felt like “Okay, my field now looks different”?
Lee Cronin: That’s a good question. I think in the end, I never really had to dress it up. I realized that chemistry wasn’t really programmable. Doing programming chemistry and then using the technology provision of life, I was straight-up honest with the funders. I said to them that I will use the program to be target based, and then know from where I can reverse it and go un-target-based. Also, you are asking me if I have done anything interesting, I do not know. I like the fact that we can program robots to make drugs and discover new reactions, which I think is interesting. I also think the assembly theory might be pretty interesting, as it completes a problem that exists in physics. I think it is probably right, although mainstream physics has not accepted it for some time.
Also, the contributions I think are most interesting to me are ones that have an intersection in many different areas. Plus, I can only really tell you what I am doing next. I am not pretty good at saying “I did this, am I not so awesome?” I think that is kind of hard, but I suppose building 3D printers in 2012-2013 with engineers, to then turn those into small chemistry labs conceptually shifted the way I would think about coding NASA. I was at Foresight for a long time, and it was like yeah you can code stuff but you cannot really because it is too hard and it doesn’t work. Then I suddenly realized you probably can code because it turtles all the way down. If I can code a reaction, and then at the nanoscale the reaction is doing something, then I am coding and making things. So, I just really understood that I can start to control things much more precisely. I am just not too good at saying what I’ve done to judge it. I just basically blindly wander around spending money on doing interesting things and hoping people say I can continue.
Allison Duettmann: Wonderful, hopefully we can dig a bit deeper. Not everyone here really knows what chemputing is. I know you sort of described the rough edges of it. How would you describe this to a layperson? What is this about? What can you do with it now, and what could you do with it in the future?
Lee Cronin: The term chemputing or chemputation is interesting. Lots of people make up words to make science sound good, and I tried desperately not to do that. But if you think about what computation is, it is the act of basically taking an algorithm with some data, and the algorithm will process it and give you reliable output. As long as you can substantiate that algorithm with quantified hardware, it provides well. So, what is chemputing? Chemputing is the act of basically taking some chemical code with some molecules and reliably turning those molecules into products on standardized hardware. That is the trick, you need standardized hardware. I realized that was probably a really important thing because chemists are geniuses at making molecules, but they all do it in slightly different ways with slightly different standards, so not everything is uniformly reproducible.
I had to build this programming language, which took a couple of weeks to write and many years to refine. It had to compile the architecture precisely to get the right answer, which is not easy. You are having to mix concepts from chemistry, computer science theory, and programming languages. All computer scientists think chemistry is completely programmable and you just have to draw a graph, and all chemists think programming chemistry is impossible and they just have to read the literature. You have all of these people with completely different views. To the layperson, get robots to make Tylenol, then take the input agents, process them, and get an outcome that is indistinguishable on all devices. I think that covers it.
Allison Duettmann: It is gradually sinking in. To make it more complete, what company did you found based on this?
Lee Cronin: Yes, so I founded the company called Chemify, which is actually going to become commercialized. More importantly, I have a standard programming language I am getting out there. Schmidt Futures have given me funding to get the concept out there and get people using it. The company is going to monetize it, and I am going to build on it academically as I explore science and encode ideas scientifically in this programming language. You can really think about it as Python for chemistry, and Chemify is building the robots that make that a commercial reality. I have been building robots for at least 10 years and doing my best to make them reproducible, but people do not tend to copy what we have done. As such, I think the best way to get it out there and make a difference is to make a company and a nonprofit, as well as carry on in academia. I am already writing a textbook on chemputation, which I have pretty much finished, that can tell you all you need to know.
Allison Duettmann: Great! Along that path, have you figured out much about the origin of life?
Lee Cronin: Yeah. The origin of life is actually a really tractable problem now. When you look at the complexity of the cell, it can seem like oh my gosh that is really impossible. But first, before the origin of life, let me talk about the origin of the eye and the blind watchmaker. Lots of people would say a watch is an impossible thing in the evidence of creationism. However, if you take an eye, you can evolve one in just a few generations. Certain people, even chemists, like George Whitesides, a very famous Harvard chemist, would say the cell is just impossibly complicated, so the origin of life must have been really difficult. I do not think that is correct. I feel as though chemists do not understand a really important word called “selection.” What we found out through our chemistry and looking at molecules, it is possible to see selection going on in the world before evolution.
So, selection creates the architecture that builds evolutionary machines. That is one of the reasons I became fascinated with nanomachines. You know, human beings abstracted making machines by hand. I want to know how the universe evolved nanomachines from scratch with no humans. There is no one doing nanoscience, so how did that happen? Well, it happened through selection and the layers to produce the complex cells. So, the phenomenon that is producing life is very easy to study. We are studying it in my lab right now and making very big leaps. There are some problems such as culture problems, dogmatic problems, and people saying “I don’t believe you.” However, data beats dogma.
Allison Duettmann: Okay, so maybe go a bit in-depth about the eye.
Lee Cronin: Okay, so in terms of what you want to do is to ask “Can I understand the path to the origin of life and chemical space?” What we have worked out in my lab and other labs as well, including collaborators such as Sara Walker, is that it is possible to see how molecules remember the environment they were in through random chemistry. What we are showing in the lab actually is that you can generate much complexity if you put in minerals and do recursion. Three components you need for an origin of life experiment: You need certain complexity, heterogeneity, and recursions. At some point, the system does the job for you. The fact that objects start to exist in time due to memory is what creates life. The universe literally creates its own consciousness. It is kind of bizarre.
Allison Duettmann: Well, there is a really wonderful new book by Ed Yong on how different animal senses reveal the hidden realms around us, which also goes into a bit of depth on the problem of the eye and creation views on that versus the evolution view. I think it is very interesting to think about what the evolution of different life forms can tell us about different realms and sensory organs of things we cannot see. So, I wonder if you can take us on a quick recap of perhaps some of the things you and Sara discussed on Lex Friedman’s podcast. What if anything, and I know it is hard to summarize, can you tell us about your research on the origin of life in long-term futures and potentially other alien life forms? Is there anything you can venture out with and make any speculatory guesses on?
Lee Cronin: Well, I can tell you of some things I am pretty sure about. I am pretty sure that the precise chemistry associated with biology and life on Earth - there is the chemistry of life, there is the biology of life, and there are life phenomena - is absolutely unique to Earth. So, what that means is that when we come in contact with aliens, which I guess we will either remotely or directly…
Allison Duettmann: You said “when” not “if”
Lee Cronin: When. We should be able to. There are origin of life events happening everywhere. It is not that difficult to get in contact with an alien life form in the next millennia let's say, but it should be much earlier, even if we end up making them in the lab. The one thing we can be for sure about is they will be so incredibly different, that we will have to use new types of theory to understand them. Now, we might say they are too different and feel they are too wild. We need to focus on planets that have the same mass, gravity, and distance from the sun to have a greater chance to find creatures like us. I think selection will produce so many wild things, that we just have no idea how contingent we are. So, we should look for planets that are rocky, with water, similar distance to the sun, similar number of photons, similar amount of time etc. We will therefore have a chance to recognize them as lifeforms.
I am pretty confident we will encounter them though, based on what I see in the chemistry because there is nothing special about what we do that would make it entirely impossible, other than the fact that we are very contingent upon the origin of life. So, the only way to do it is to create new origins of life and mini big bangs as at CERN. I think that is probably clear. The other thing that I think we will be able to do - since I do not think humans will necessarily go to Mars - is to be creationists. I would ask what is the minimum amount of information I can send to another planet to terraform that planet. What nanomachine can I send to Mars to terraform Mars? Think about what happened on Earth. One mutation and one protein terraformed a planet and produced oxygen. I would want to know what is the minim payload I could send to Mars that will turn it into a living system. The next question, if I am being really egocentric, although I would be dead, would be: How could I code some of our culture into it?
Allison Duettmann: Oh, interesting. So you do not really abide by the theory that different planets have different evolutionary constraints and different values? You would actually like to see some of the human-contingent values that are pretty much a collateral effect of the way we grew up on this planet.
Lee Cronin: Well, the scientist in me would say, “No, who cares?” The eagertist in me would say, “Come on, let’s try and make sure that our culture survives the universe if it is a war of selection.” I would just settle for terraforming a new planet and a new life form, but let’s go a bit further. I would like to know what plays out. If we do it again, do we get very similar systems? Do we get Twitter? Do we get memes? How long does it take intelligence to evolve? I have got a sneaking suspicion that Earth is below average in intelligence. It took a longer time to get to intelligence on Earth than on a lot of other planets because of the gravity and time.
Allison Duettmann: If they are smarter, where are they?
Lee Cronin: Interstellar travel is really hard because you are going farther away. I know Eric Weinstein thinks we can go faster than the speed of light, but we cannot. Light speed sets a limit in the universe for the propogation causation, so sadly they are getting further away. That does not mean that we cannot find indirect evidence or a couple of examples if purposeful information is directed and sent. However, I think it is going to take the act of us observing one, sending information, and them sending it back, or them doing the same thing to us.
Creon Levit: Yeah, but Lee a fraction of light speed the galaxy could have been settled a thousand times over in the course of evolutionary time scales.
Lee Cronin: That is presuming that the universe had the capability to become intelligent earlier. I think I can prove on the back of the envelope that you need a certain number of states in the universe before it is even capable of producing intelligence. I think this is a thing right?
Creon Levit: I wonder if intelligence in the universe has only become possible relatively recently, and we are already moving quite far apart to make this hopping thing we want to do a little bit hard. I am not sure I understand or believe in the Grabby Aliens idea, but they might still come.
Allison Duettmann: If anyone listening is interested in the Grabby Aliens idea then check out 2 podcasts ago, where we had Robin Hanson discuss this idea a little further. One question: How do you think that is even stable as different life forms would be more adapted to these environments and have more evolutionary advantages? They would propagate faster, and with that their values would propagate faster. So, how would you even create a stable human value set on a planet that is not even made to facilitate that?
Lee Cronin: Yeah, that is a really good question. I guess the answer is that you really cannot. You could do something that is interesting. If you knew enough about how evolution worked, I would properly gain the environment. If I could get to that planet, I would set the planet up so that when things evolved, they would create and rediscover our culture. It would require a lot of reverse engineering and planting easter eggs so they could go there.
Allison Duettmann: But then you would have to make a perfect simulation of the Earth. Otherwise, you will always have bits and pieces that will over time create very different variables.
Lee Cronin: Not necessarily. You do not want precision - Look, the reason I am talking about culture and values is because I do not know what these things are, and I could not mathematically define them. Culture is a real thing, and it exists. They have an informational context associated with them. It might be that if you start a life from scratch that it is not possible for a culture to emerge or be copied. All cultures are unique to the planet in which they emerge. That is a experiment worth doing, right?
Allison Duettmann: Sure. I mean usually you have evolutionary game theory, and then you have some evolution of psychology, and other people are more culturally contingent etc. So, I think all of this research suggests that even tweaking the environment in tiny bits leads you to pretty different value theories. There is a really interesting blog post about baby-eating aliens by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I do not want to give the plot away, but basically a human colony encounters aliens and are appalled by their moral behaviors, as they eat their own babies. Likewise, other alien species are appalled by human culture habits. Much of the values are evolutionarily adaptive. Look, I am all for making new experiments and figuring out if “Lee values” are evolutionarily adaptive and if they can outcompete whatever. Let’s run the experiment. I’m game!
Lee Cronin: You can quickly ask the question if several of our cultures are implicitly encoded in the fine structure constant. Right?
Allison Duettmann: Yeah, we’ll see. We will check back in with you in how many years? What did you say, a few millennia?
Lee Cronin: Yes, I think millennia.
Allison Duettmann: Okay, wonderful. On that cheery note, I will hand it off to Beatrice to get more into the Existential Hope section of this podcast. Beatrice, the stage is yours.
Beatrice Erkers: Yes, we are going to take a left turn. I am not going to say let’s get more philosophical because I feel like we have been pretty out there. But let us get pretty concrete about your science and what your work can do for the future. The idea of this podcast is pretty much for getting people on board with the idea that positive futures are possible, which hopefully you will agree with. Let us try to understand what your work can create for the future as well. We have talked about you background and your current work already. Are you excited about the future? Can you share if you have had a certain experience that made you excited for the future?
Lee Cronin: I am probably even more for the exponential future than you guys are. I am not one of these subscribers to the heat death of the universe. I can probably explain why physics has gone wrong and not sound like a lunatic.
Allison Duettmann: Please do.
Lee Cronin: The second law is not correct, because time is fundamental and the universe is expanding. The energy of the universe is increasing because of that expansion, so there are four beliefs that physicists have. Firstly, there is the big bang. The second one is that the second law gives you a clock. The third one is that time is emergent, and the fourth is that causation is emergent. You could replace all of those things with the fact that time is fundamental. The universe is expanding in states all the time, and there are more resources coming to build things with. We will see that the universe does not have to end in the heat death, and it does not have to end but simply build more objects instead. So, that is why I am terrible optimist, because I think the second law cannot be correct. It is a misstatement of the asymmetry of the universe and time.
Allison Duettmann: That is a very big claim.
Lee Cronin: I can prove it I think. It has to be proven experimentally, otherwise it is just nonsense.
Allison Duettmann: On a hopeful note though, one of the things I always got a kick out of is The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. But it is a pretty interesting sci-fi, if you are interested in the heat death of the universe and trying to overcome that. Sorry Beatrice, I did not want to jump in on your part.
Beatrice Erkers: Well, if it is true, I feel like that is good news that we will not end in a heat death, but I still want to know if there is a specific event that made you excited about the future? Or have you always just had that with you?
Lee Cronin: When I invented the assembly theory, I was in Nara, Japan at an origin of life meeting. I could not really translate the mathematical structure in my brain into words. I could see how assembly theory and time worked, but I was not able to explain it to anyone. I remember running down steps, and I run everyday. I was there, and I somehow was able to conceptualize the graphs and the math, and that helped me realize how I could explain that the future was not closed. That was probably the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. It was a singular insight I had one morning, and I realized my view of the universe would never be the same again.
Beatrice Erkers: That sounds very exciting. Is this something that generally gets you excited about the future? Or are there other things that you can try to use to onboard someone, such as a book or movie?
Lee Cronin: Not really, I have just always been curious about why things happen. I still have Ph.D. students coming through, and I still do not get bored supervising Ph.D. students. There are so many questions. I do like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I like sections in that and how you can focus on things and find something interesting in even the most boring object. I guess I have three techniques I use for being optimistic. We are deterministic machines, and if it wasn’t for the infinitely intrinsic symmetry of the universe, this entire conversation would mean nothing because it is already preprogrammed by physics. However, this conversation means something because it is not programmed by physics, yet the universe is deterministic. So, how can the universe be deterministic and undetermined? I tell people you are boring because you are going around the same things. Go to new places, walk backwards, meet new people, and find new objects. Places, people, and objects. Find new ones and mix them up. I think that will keep you infinitely curious, because there are always new things you can do. And again, in a block universe, curiosity does not exist. I am a curious person.
Beatrice Erkers: Curiosity certainly seems to be what makes the best scientists and technologists in general. It would almost be fun to use the places, people, and objects system of looking at it. If you think of the best possible future ever, and this hopefully entails some of your work like the chemputing, do you have a vision of existential hope for the future?
Lee Cronin: I think so. We are already in a good future. I know we have problems, such as just coming out of a pandemic and there is war, but all of the metrics are pretty good. I find it amusing that people worry about climate change and meteors. All I can see is people getting more industrious and getting better. Our cultural layers are getting richer and more interesting. So, I think we will get to an exponential abundance, which is made up of different levels. We will get there, because the planet does have the capability to supply the resources we need. I see that we are in an interesting game. It is about making a mess and cleaning it up, and then making a mess and cleaning it up. Overall, I think it has to be done in layers. We have a long way, because we everytime we have technology, we use it to cause chaos, but we will clean it up.
Beatrice Erkers: Yeah, making a mess and cleaning it up, I guess.
Lee Cronin: Well, we will take the plastic out of the oceans. We will take the CO2 out of the atmosphere. You know? It is not beyond the wit of humanity to do it, but right now it is not that pressing. The real problem is when the sun engulfs the earth. That is the real climate change we have to worry about.
Beatrice Erkers: That will be the hard one to fight probably.
Lee Cronin: I do not think so.
Beatrice Erkers: No?
Lee Cronin: I mean look, you have a billion years advanced warning. You have to do something to the orbit of the Earth. You can plan ahead. It is not that hard.
Creon Levit: And in a fraction of a billion years, the Earth may be a place we no longer live, because we may have other places to live.
Lee Cronin: Maybe. It may be easier to move the Earth and just go somewhere else.
Beatrice Erkers: That sounds very nice, I hope we can get the coordinates there.
Lee Cronin: I mean we can deflect an asteroid. If we really wanted to, we could get a massive asteroid from the asteroid belt and throw it at the Earth in such a way that it is not such a massive blow. I would play billiards, pool as you call it. It would be fine.
Beatrice Erkers: How do you lug it at the Earth without destroying the Earth?
Lee Cronin: That is not my problem. That is a couple of billion years away. Come on.
Name Unknown: You really think it is easier to move a planet than to go to another planet?
Lee Cronin: Yeah, sure. I mean I have not done much calculations. But if you think of the orbit, speed, and mass of the Earth, we should be able to calculate the portion we need to move the orbit systematically over a billion years. I mean it is cool, right? It is not hard.
Beatrice Erkers: It is always fun when you hear very out there, futuristic ideas. I have never heard of moving the Earth.
Lee Cronin: I just made it up because you asked the question. I thought about shifting it because I watched this Chinese movie The Wandering Earth and thought it is bullshit, but I went and calculated it, and it is not. The way they did it is wrong. They left the solar system, which is impossible, but the idea is there.
Beatrice Erkers: So, if we had to jump ahead - not necessarily all the way to when we would have to move the Earth - but are there any other technologies? We already talked about chemputing and this, but are there any other technologies or specific developments in science, governance structures, or anything you think we need to work on?
Lee Cronin: I try to not talk about my own stuff to say it is needed for the future because that is egotistical, boring, and probably not correct. However, I am sure Elon Musk will try to go to Mars with the chemputer. I will try to sell him on it because he needs to make drugs when he goes to Mars, but we will probably have a chemputer on the moon. But yes, I think there are a couple of things to think about. And yeah, new governing structures. This is a rabbit hole, but I think what God is trying to do is create a new origin of life, new life form, and new intelligence quickly. We then need to work out what intelligence is, and then use that intelligence to basically ask - If you take the ego out of that intelligence, how can we use that to govern the planet? Politicians are not the correct way to govern a structure.
I also like the idea of creating consciousness in different substrates to find out what different commonalities there are for problem solving. So, I think moving supercomputing into chemicals is something I am interested in doing, as I think it will solve problems faster. Also, you can reboot them faster. The problem with a human brain is if you reboot it, it is murder. However, if you basically take a consciousness substantiated in chemistry, you can reboot it. Having said that though, maybe consciousness will need its own right. I will be known as some chemical fascist resetting all chemicals. But no, in all seriousness, I think we have to do something to reset our governance structures given the bad intentions right now. That should be easy. What will be hard I think is substantiating intelligence in a non silicon framework. We do not know the mechanism that gives us intelligence. This is a big mystery, and it is not just mathematics. That does not mean using mathematics is not helpful, but there is something below the Turing-Church thesis which enables intelligence to exist, which is kind of crazy.
Beatrice Erkers: Thinking of this, are there any major risks or challenges you feel we would have to consider?
Lee Cronin: I feel all of the risks of us killing ourselves, nuclear war, and things like that are just overblown. Who cares if humans do not exist in a billion years, right? I mean we will not exist in a billion years, some echo of us will. If we have an event through nuclear war, then something else will emerge, but the planet is not gone. It has a really long lifespan. So, we keep obsessing about our local culture and not understanding a more deeper culture in time. Even some of these billionaire projects and millennia efforts are not going to capture it. The only way we get there is with self-replicating, self-aware organisms. So, I am not worried at all. What is the worst that can happen? A meteor can hit the planet. We have a nuclear war. I mean, sure, but that will cause a lot of suffering on the human level. Evolution doesn’t care. You evolve in populations, but you die alone. I probably should not say it quite like that, but.
Beatrice Erkers: As long as there is life, you think that is a good outcome?
Lee Cronin: I think so, but of course I am trying to be as non human about it as possible. Of course, I do not want there to be a nuclear war or unnecessary suffering. However, suffering is a cure for billions of years for evolution to occur. Of course, we should not inflict suffering on one another because we know better. I think we kind of obsess about the negative and this doomsday. When Greenland melts, the sea level is going to go up, so we better get away from the ocean. But these are things we can see happening. It is not tricky. I would probably buy some real estate in Miami for a few years, but I would not buy it to have in 200 years time because it will be underwater.
Beatrice Erkers: Wow. Well, I am going to jump ahead because we are running a bit out of time. The word eucatastrophe, which means the opposite of a catastrophe, is an event once occurring will bring much more value to this world. So, the Existential Hope Project is trying to find a better word for it, because people just hear “catastrophe” when they hear “eucatastrophe.” Do you have any suggestions on that? It is very okay if you don’t, we can just jump ahead.
Lee Cronin: Oh, yeah. I would have to think about that. I would call it a greater something. I do not know. I would have to think about it because I do not have a decent word. You shouldn’t use that word. It does lead me wrong and gives the wrong impression, but I know what you mean.
I think we should think about other areas as well, since we are going to get pretty good at synthetic biology soon. Maybe not now, but we will be able to turn many more photons into food, which I think is going to be amazing - probably within a very short space of time. I think arguably nobody should starve on Earth because we do have enough food, but we will get to the point where that is the case. I also don’t know where I stand on the physical limits of humanity with aging and things. However, I do think we will get to the point where we can predict, treat, and understand most disease. Therefore, this will lead to the point where human suffering does not exist anymore. I mean, we will have such good detection systems that we will know if you are about to get cancer or something like that. We will just have so much knowledge that we will be able to intervene, and the amount of suffering will go down, which would be a great thing I think.
Beatrice Erkers: That would basically be a eucatastrophe. That is your example of a eucatastrophe: the synthetic biology example.
Lee Cronin: Yes, that would be my example. I think it is entirely tangible that it will happen.
Beatrice Erkers: That’s good because what we try to also do with this podcast is create an art piece based on your prompt. Because trying to actually get people excited about the future can be facilitated with art. If you are as specific as possible with a eucatastrophe, it could make a great art piece.
Lee Cronin: When I was 8 years old - well, now I am on 49 going on 99. So, when I was 8 years old, I used to dream of a world where everything was connected to everything else. I would be able to see around the other side of the planet, and I would be able to get access, do stuff, and talk to people. In my lifetime, this has happened exponentially. It is absolutely amazing this happened, and it is going to continue. I think in regard to understanding our environment it is going to happen again.
Beatrice Erkers: That is a good one to remind us of eucatastrophes that have happened. Thank you so much. I think this can make a great art piece, so we’ll see what artists make of it, and I will share it with you when it is done. Do you want to maybe round off Allison?
Allison Duettmann: Usually, we ask the question “What is the best advice you ever got?” But, I think I want to ask you a different question because I think within this hour, you have really not disappointed in playing controversial bingo. You have a nonstandard view on everything from chemputing, to climate change, aging, and the second law of thermodynamics. I would love to get someone on to debate you on these points, but that is beyond the scope of this podcast. I do want to ask you one question though. Usually people get asked the question, I think it was one of TEAL’s questions: “What is the number one thing you disagree with society and the mainstream view?” I am not going to ask you this, but I do want to ask you the opposite. Is there one thing you totally agree with the mainstream?
Lee Cronin: Totally agree with the mainstream? Well,
Creon Levit: The periodic table exists.
Lee Cronin: Yeah, I mean I do think we should be nicer to each other. I agree with a lot of things in the mainstream. I don’t know. I certainly agree that we have a problem of bias and understanding democracies and other ways people make decisions, I suppose. I also do agree that we are kind of dopamine-ing ourselves into idiocy. Elon Musk is going to solve that now, but he might end the world. But no, I totally agree that things are getting better, and we are getting better connected. I am just excited.
Allison Duettmann: If only that was a mainstream view. I do not think people think things are getting better. It is certainly a more widespread view. We have three more minutes left, and Creon has a question.
Creon Levit: Yeah, I have a lot of questions but not enough time. Instead of asking questions, because Lee and I have sparred occasionally, I want to say Lee that I have the hugest respect for you, your work, your lab, and your ideas, especially in the chemical domain. I really appreciate you being you. That is all I wanted to say because I do not have time right now.
Lee Cronin: Thank you for that.
Allison Duettmann: Look, I will take it upon me to perhaps get a debate going, at least on the second law of thermodynamics. I mean, look, Foresight definitely has some overlap with early extropian communities that were at least trying to go against entropy. Perhaps, we can actually debate the underlying foundation a bit in a future one, as it is beyond our scope for the next two minutes. But I will ask: What is the best advice you ever got?
Lee Cronin: The best advice I ever got is just keep asking why. I think “why” is a good tool. Why not? Why can’t you do that thing? Tell me why. Convince me why.
Allison Duettmann: I think those questions are really different though. In Germany, oftentimes they ask “Why?” as in why you, why now, why this etc. In the Bay area, I feel as though people ask “Why not?” I think that they are pretty different questions, but I do agree from a scientific angle.
Lee Cronin: Yeah. One opens up why the universe is, while the other opens up why is the universe not that way.
Allison Duettmann: Yeah, and I think the engineering approach is an interesting one because it is more the “Why not?” question. You know? It is the question of why could I not improve this and learn a bit more about it. Okay, wonderful! Lee, thank you so much for joining, and thank you everyone for such an active chat. I look forward to seeing you two weeks from now in person and having Sara on as well. This was definitely a pleasure, and I am sure it is not the last time we hear from you.