The risks of Xenobiology

27 February 2018

Interview with

Piers Millett, University of Oxford

How do we work out what the chances of something getting out actually are, and then, if it did, what the consequences would be? Would a breach be unnoticed and unremarkable, or wipe us all out. Georgia Mills spoke to Victor Delorenzo from the National Centre of Biotechnology, who spends his time thinking about these things.

Piers - Hi, I’m Piers Millett. I’m a Senior Research Fellow at The Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

Georgia - Is the subject of xenobiology something considered there?

Piers - It certainly is. We look at a variety of different, very low probability, very high consequence types of risks. We have been doing some thinking on both the risks and the potential benefits of things like xenobiology where we have a set of science that is not necessarily easily based upon existing risk structures, with existing datasets on risks, where we need to figure out what some of those benefits are and what some of the risks are? Certainly on the risk side there are questions about what the potential is to accidentally or deliberately create something that could outcompete natural resources or, indeed, have some massive impact on the environment no matter how low probably that actually is?

Georgia - How do you go about discussing something that’s never happened and you don’t really know how it would happen and what are the odds, that kind of thing? How do you even start?

Piers - Some of the basis here is to build around the concept that there are probably some consequences that are so large that the likelihood of them happening almost becomes irrelevant. If we think about technologies that could actually impact human development over centuries or even over millenia in the future, the value of human life as we move forward has to be offset against the risk that we face now. So that something that could dramatically decrease the chance of civilisation reaching its full potential or, indeed, lead to the complete wiping out of humanity, so we never see all those future lives that we would have needs to be offset against more likely, but lower consequence risks that we have to deal with at the moment.

Georgia - How does xenobiology rank in the list of the top ten threats? Is it considered by your scale a bigger or smaller thing to consider?

Piers - It’s a very new field so it’s something that we’re looking at. Something that we’re thinking about and I don’t think it’s currently perhaps one of those tops risks. That really feeds nicely into the way that it may help to manage other risks that we’ve been thinking about. One element of xenobiology that’s discussed a lot is whether it could be used for some sort of biocontainment strategy that would provide us with safer ways to explore the use of other advanced biotechnologies and, therefore, whether it would be a positive tool as we move forward and try and reaCH those sorts of futures that we’re talking about.

Much of the focus is on dealing with risks and avoiding the very worst outcomes to the future of humanity. That necessitates both trying to avoid certain futures and trying to create more positive futures. In reality, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we move the needle on those very very very low probability, but very very high consequence risk just a little bit because it turns out when you’re talking about the entire future of humanity, anything you can do to reduce the risk a tiny bit can have a massive impact when you look over the future.

Georgia - Xenobiology, I guess, is a funny one because there are these risks involved. But, at the same time, it could massively reduce the impacts of something we think is very likely to happen like climate change or something like that, so it’s sort of in this strange place. You say “reducing the risk,” how would you do that for something like xenobiology?

Piers - It’s remarkably important the ability and the willingness of the community, a scientific technical community to engage in the broader discussions about how their work fits into a societal context? I think one of the nice things about the meeting that we’ve been here at today, the willingness of the xenobiology community to consider the broader implications of their work rather than just the highly technical nature. I think that’s not an interaction we see in many areas of science and one that would really benefit from being replicated and thoroughly embraced more broadly I think as we try and figure out how science fits into society over the coming decades and years to come.


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