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Human Health, Sustainability

What Can Evil Robots, 'Black Mirror,' and Plant-based Burgers Teach the Biotech Industry?

Photo by Achim Hepp via Creative Commons

As the life science and tech industries pull closer to one another and, indeed, begin to merge, SXSW will become an increasingly natural gathering place for biotech companies and thinkers.

For decades, SXSW has drawn the creative and the curious alike to Austin, Texas, for an annual celebration of new ideas, unusual art, and emerging technologies. For a little over a week every year, the conference—and the shadow “South-by” ecosystem of events, talks, and installations that has developed around the official event—takes over the city, and overwhelms visitors with intellectual and artistic stimulation.

I attended the conference this year to garner insights and information from fields outside the life sciences. SXSW offers over 25 tracks of official programming, grouped into four festivals: Interactive, Film, Music, and Comedy. Most of the sessions were democratically chosen through the conference’s PanelPicker system, where proposed sessions garner votes and community comments. There are specialty tracks within each festival—such as Brands & Marketing, Health & MedTech, Intelligent Future, and Media & Journalism—which are held at venues clustered around the Austin Convention Center. With so many interesting tracks across so many subjects in such close proximity, I had many chances to see solutions that industries other than biotech and life sciences are applying to their challenges.

Three sessions I attended were especially suggestive of new solutions that could be applied to life sciences. Here are summaries of key points from these panels alongside thought-starters for how insights and ideas from the session could be extrapolated into life science.


Cory Doctorow, Christopher Noessel, Malka Older, and Rashida Richardson

Untold AI: Is Sci Fi Telling Us the Right Stories?

If you’ve been watching news headlines in recent years, you will have noticed public figures such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking raising alarms about the dangers of artificial intelligence. But as algorithms spread throughout society, there are more pressing concerns than “summoning the demon,” as Musk has referred to aspects of AI.

The Untold AI panel gathered Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author, journalist, and advisor to the Electronic Freedom Foundation; Christopher Noessel, a UX expert at IBM who also publishes a science fiction pop culture commentary blog, Sci-Fi Interfaces; Malka Older, an aid worker and science fiction author; and Rashida Richardson, a policy expert from AI Now.

Although they approached the subject from different perspectives, the panelists broadly argued that the challenges, fears, and opportunities presented by researchers and policy makers are different from the concerns and images that the entertainment industry presents to the public. Its representations of artificial intelligence skew toward the dystopian, with familiar story lines of robots rising against their creators or killer technology developed by an evil genius.

The challenges, fears, and opportunities presented by researchers and policy makers are different from the concerns and images that the entertainment industry presents to the public.

Hollywood’s focus on explosive tropes makes for dramatic action scenes but distracts audiences from the subtler dangers that may already be impacting their lives. Discrimination, bias, and privacy are only a few of the issues that, unchecked, could lead to long-lasting social and technological problems. It’s far more likely that AI will deny people benefits like health insurance or mortgages based on opaque or biased data. Unable to fight back against a technological black box, consumers would have little recourse in contesting these decisions.

Also, AI’s portrayal in media as the creation of rogue evil geniuses absolves ordinary people of responsibility for the technology’s negative impacts. The reality is that many hands touch the algorithms in our lives; everyone involved in AI’s development must keep in mind the potential for abuse. Finally, the panelists pointed out, none of the doomsday storytelling about AI acknowledges the benefits of advanced technology. Where are the stories portraying AI as beneficial?

Thoughts for life sciences: AI has enormous potential to do good for humanity. However, if the data we feed algorithms perpetuates or amplifies bias, resulting in flawed outputs (in such things as insurance recommendations, health coverage policies, or housing approvals), we must closely examine the inputs. As companies continue to integrate algorithms into drug discovery and other elements of biotech, we need to keep a watchful eye on, in particular, disparities in racial and gender representation in medical research. While women are well represented in trials in some disease areas of research, other fields skew decidedly male. Trials crucially inform dosage, efficacy, and other elements of developing drugs. Consider Ambien, for which the FDA issued a new approval in 2013 for a lower dose, because women clear the drug more slowly from their bodies. And despite government requirements enacted in 1993, minorities also continue to be underrepresented in clinical research. If we discover drugs, approve therapies, set health standards, and create rules in AI based on biased data sets, we risk developing technology that harms, not helps, patients seeking care.


Mick Champayne and Casey Hudetz

Black Mirror and the Power of Speculative Design

The TV show Black Mirror explores alternate realities that push near-future science fiction possibilities. These scenarios are often disturbing, and the show can seem prescient as some of the scenarios and technologies grow ever closer to our reality. This session, presented by Mick Champayne and Casey Hudetz, two experience designers at the marketing agency Digitas, aimed to educate designers on the power of speculative storytelling through design and on how this school of thinking can guide society and individuals toward a positive future.

For example, if you could interact with your future self, aged by several decades, would you make different decisions today? The answer is yes. The speakers called this “future self continuity” and referenced research in which study participants, given the opportunity to interact with a simulated digital future version of themselves, opted to save more money for retirement.

Credit: Mick Champayne & Casey Hudetz, "Black Mirror and the Power of Speculative Design," SXSW 2019

This is the power of speculative design, a field in which artists and designers create scenarios that serve as thought experiments, warnings, and opportunities. As the speakers explained, speculative design picks up on signals (using current trends, such as internet of things), extrapolates them outward, and creates art, video, or other material in response that make these futures more tangible. The goal is to move beyond “probable futures,” explore “plausible futures,” push the boundaries of thought toward “possible futures,” and ultimately make decisions that lead to “preferable futures.”

Artists can use speculative design to explore and pose questions around societal trends and issues, and companies can tap speculative design to guide thinking and anticipate opportunity and potential abuse around various signals. As an example of the latter, the speakers pointed to Google’s Selfish Ledger Project, in which the company imagined comprehensive data collection as a means to support users’ desired goals, inform further collection of data to nudge users toward certain behaviors, help future users based on prior generations’ data, and make suggestions based on multi-generational data to push users toward beneficial outcomes.

Thoughts for life sciences: Imagine if large biotech or pharma companies used speculative design to extrapolate crucial signals in biotech and health care today, such as the high cost of medicines or the impact of powerful drugs like opioids. Could we develop possible scenarios for negative and positive outcomes around these kinds of complex issues and then use them to move toward a preferable future for individuals and society? Our ability to influence the code of life and innovate in sensitive areas, such as reproduction, will only continue to grow. Could speculative design help us answer not the question of “Can it be done?” but “Should it be done?”


Dan Altschuler Malek, Olivia Fox Cabane, Lisa Feria, Andrew Ive

Alt. Proteins: Not Just Another Tech Revolution

There are many reasons to dislike industrial meat production: factory farms are cruel and weigh heavily on the environment. But what if we could enjoy the taste of meat without these negative tradeoffs? A trio of venture capitalists—Dan Altschuler Malek, Lisa Feria, and Adrew Ive—and a moderator—Olivia Fox Cabane—discussed growing consumer interest in so-called alt. proteins.

Alt. proteins—alternative proteins—can be plant-based biomimicry or, more radically, real meat grown in labs from cell cultures. Companies like Impossible Foods exemplify the former, while Memphis Meats serves as an example of the latter. The panelists pinned this trend on millennial demand and consumer awareness of agricultural impacts on the environment. Indeed, the industry is growing quickly, according to Olivia Fox Cabane, who showed a map of all the players in the alt. protein space, from companies to VCs to accelerators. What’s next? Many of the products now on the market are priced for affluent consumers; low-cost options and commonly used items, such as lunch meats, will be crucial to the continued growth of meat replacements. And though beef has been an area of intense focus, seafood and pork remain areas for competitive solutions.

Just a few weeks after SXSW, the panelists’ perspective proved out: Burger King announced the addition of a plant-based burger to its menu.

As farm-to-table moves toward petri-dish-to-plate, we’ll have to ask: what is meat, anyway? And in fact, what is nutrition?

Thoughts for life sciences: As a firm omnivore who consumes the Impossible Burger and whole vegetables as well as pasture-raised meats, I am glad to see the growing social awareness of the harms of industrial meat production and interest in eating more plants. But as farm-to-table moves toward petri-dish-to-plate, we’ll have to ask: What is meat, anyway? In fact, what is nutrition?

There is the platonic ideal of a food—a carrot, for example, which grows in the ground, is generally orange, and tastes like, well, a carrot. And then there is the reality of a particular carrot or other food item, which is undoubtedly influenced by the microvariants in the life cycle of its production. Even small changes in soil, nutrients, climate, harvest time, or length of storage can impact the taste and nutritional value of any item, not to mention the many different cultivars of any given plant. (Carrots actually come in a delightful array of colors and variations on flavor.) Bio-mimicry aside, if we begin to grow meats in a lab from a single cell line or set of cell lines, do we reduce diversity in nutrition? Who decides that beef should always taste a certain way, or pork another? If we decide that a specific flavor profile and composition represents an entire species or breed of animal, do we risk reducing the genetic diversity of animals and plants? And how do we determine the ideal composition of a potato or a pork chop to begin with?

In human health, the ability to grow entire organs from cells poses similar questions. There is the platonic concept of a liver, kidney, or heart, and then there are the millions of variants growing and living within our bodies. If we move toward more cell-based innovation, we should stop to think about what selections, biases, and variants we choose, and if there are any trade-offs.

Many powerful ideas come through the clash of seemingly unrelated industries, thinkers, and concepts. SXSW is a rich environment for this kind of intellectual cross-pollination. As the life science and tech industries pull closer to one another and, indeed, begin to merge, SXSW will become an increasingly natural gathering place for biotech companies and thinkers.

Story By

Genevieve Sinha

Genevieve Sinha joined Flagship Pioneering in 2016. As senior manager of communications, Genevieve works with Senior Partner Jason Pontin to lead communications and PR for the firm, and she provides strategic guidance to the firm's young, emerging co...

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