"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

What is DNA printing? Should you be worried? By Richard Godwin

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Feb 12, 2024


DNA printing is a technology you should be worried about.

You were worried about boring old artificial intelligence? You should probably be more worried about DNA printing.

We’re talking benchtop synthesisers that allow you to move bits of genetic material around like letters in a Word document and then print them in interesting new forms.

The technology has been around since the 1980s. It used to be expensive, fiddly and under the control of a few vaguely responsible people. However, the cost of the machines is falling rapidly. I just found one online for €25,000. The complexity of forms you can print using them is improving, too. A deadly pathogen is now theoretically possible. One that is resistant to all treatment.

And the website makes it all sound so simple. ‘The cartridge-and-chip technology allows even untrained personnel to complete a successful DNA or RNA synthesis in no time.’

I began worrying about all this after reading The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman, one of the founders of the British artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind. Suleyman describes the moment at a genetics seminar he attended a few years ago when a respected professor disclosed that a rogue biohacker could now theoretically kill a billion people with some DNA they printed in their shed. ‘All it takes is the motivation.’

What particularly worried Suleyman at the time was that everyone else who attended the seminar went to dinner afterwards ‘and carried on chatting as normal’. What worries him now is what will happen when AI and DNA printing combine. The two technologies ‘will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen’. But they also threaten to ‘empower a diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.’

We’re talking genetic Chernobyls. The Facebook algorithm taking animal form. Self-replicating armies of rabid bats descending on Cirencester.

So Suleyman thinks we need to start regulating this technology, containing it and generally coming up with strategies to avoid sleepwalking into any kind of rabid-bat scenario.

And, in the meantime, we just have to pray that these things work a bit like regular desktop printers – ie absolutely terribly. The supervillain is trying to run off a quick porcupine-anthrax hybrid … ah, but the thing jams!

You laugh. But it’s our only hope. Richard Godwin