Beyond towers: CEO speakers provide glimpse into the future

Futurist Jamie Metzl talks about advances in genetic technology last Thursday at the Cayman Economic Outlook conference. - Photo: Ken Silva

Premier Alden McLaughlin’s announcement that Dart is planning an “iconic tower” that would “greatly exceed” the territory’s 10-story building limit was the biggest news to come out of last week’s Cayman Economic Outlook conference.

McLaughlin said Dart’s tower proposal was meant to “kick-start” the debate over the future of Cayman’s economic development.

But while a debate over how the territory should be developed is indeed important, that discussion pales in comparison to other topics that were discussed at the conference throughout the rest of the day, according to speakers there.

“When we open up the newspapers, there are all kinds of things we read about that seem urgent – the [Robert] Mueller hearings, the North Korea summit – or … how tall the buildings should be. But when we take a step back and look at our lives from a higher altitude, in many ways, these things will pale in comparison to what’s coming,” said speaker Jamie Metzl, a futurist and author of “Hacking Darwin.” “We humans are on the verge of taking control of biology and altering how all of biology works, including our own.”

Metzl’s speech primarily focused on how technology and the understanding of human genes will fundamentally change the essence of being human, by allowing people to have genetically altered children. Other talks focused on political matters such as the rising tide of populism, or economic issues such as how technology will displace humans in the workforce.

One of the most immediate impacts mapping the genome will have on society is through how healthcare is delivered, said Metzl. By being able to look at individuals’ genes, doctors will be able to deliver patient-specific treatment, rather than delivering care based on population averages, he said.

“Under the current system, if you have a headache, maybe you’ll get a Tylenol. And the way you find out if you’re one of the rare people who die from taking a Tylenol, is to take the Tylenol,” he said. “Where we’re heading is precision healthcare based on your individual biology.”

Among other advances, precision healthcare entails predicting your receptivity to certain drugs based on your biology, he said.

Healthcare will also advance beyond precision to the realm of predictive, where doctors will be able to tell what risks someone has from birth by looking at their DNA, he said. This will allow people to tailor their diets and lifestyles to minimize risks.

But advances in healthcare is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the DNA revolution, according to Metzl.

“Because our genetics aren’t just about being sick or not sick. They’re about who we are as a species. So anything with a genetic foundation, we will know about – not just who you are now, but who you will be in the future,” he said.

One of the major areas this advance will show up is in assisted reproduction, according to the futurist.

The common perception of this is the “designer baby,” where a baby’s DNA is edited to produce desirable traits – a controversial and largely untested practice. A researcher in China announced last year that he successfully altered the genes of twin girls to prevent them from contracting HIV, but his announcement was met with criticism from scientists around the world and the Chinese government has launched an investigation into the matter.

However, there is a far more feasible way to genetically enhance children, Metzl told the audience at the Cayman Economic Outlook conference.

That method is a form of in vitro fertilization called “pre-implantation genetic testing.” This entails a number of eggs being extracted from a woman and fertilized. Scientists can then sequence the embryos and remove the ones with chromosomal defects or abnormalities, and choose what will likely be the healthiest embryo.

“We can rank the order of the embryos from what we think will be the tallest to the shortest,” he said. “Or the ones who will have the highest genetic component of IQ. Any trait with a genetic component, we will be able to predict – never with perfect accuracy, but with increasingly better accuracy.”

This branch of in vitro fertilization will likely be superior to genetic editing – where scientists go into an embryo and make genetic changes – in the near future because the latter method is so complex, said Metzl.

“It’s going to be very difficult to make multiple genetic changes to a pre-implanted embryo because our genes are so complex,” he said. “It’s not like each gene does one thing; genes are overlapping, doing many different things. Genetics is an ecosystem.”

While the advances mentioned above have tremendous potential to improve the human condition, Metzl said they will come with many challenges. One of the major challenges he mentioned is the potential inequality it may bring.

“How do we make sure it’s not one group of people who have access to this, and leverage it to gain even more advantages going into the future?” Metzl asked.

Inequality has been cited as one of the major causes of the rising tide of political populism throughout the world, which was another topic of the Cayman Economic Outlook conference. Keynote speaker Noreena Hertz delved extensively into this topic, warning that it might affect Cayman.

“Populism is undermining the global rules of the game, with huge implications for the global economy,” Hertz said, warning Cayman to “expect global M&A deals to come under ever-greater scrutiny” and also “more scrutiny on tax, whether it’s transparency, avoidance, or evasion.”

Other speakers included economic development professor Ian Goldin, who spoke about how coming global shifts will impact investment; professional surfer Mark Mathews, who talked about “conquering fear;” and Swedish journalist and author Andreas Ekstrom, who talked about the “seven ways to own the world.”