A Catalog of Big Visions for Biology
Updated: Feb 20
The biggest scientific advances of the 21st century were driven by visions of a new future for humanity. In the 1960s, the great dreamers in computer science were driven by ideas of computers that could think as humans, and it was their dreams that propelled us to the current progress in machine learning. The dream of unification has propelled physics forward since electricity and magnetism were first unified in the 1800s. Today, advances in space travel are driven by the dreams of colonies on distant planets. Even if they cannot be achieved (or perhaps especially if they cannot be achieved), grand visions drive humanity to do great things.
Biology, by contrast, is dominated by clinical science and biopharma. Funding priorities are set by older people (politicians, administrators, patients and medical consumers) who have direct experience of disease and want solutions to specific medical problems now. As a result, grand visions can sometimes feel hard to come by. Attempts to dream bigger, even about medicine, come across as naive. Ask most biologists about the cure for cancer, and they will tell you it doesn’t exist: cancer is many diseases that are mostly unrelated to each other, and that all have to be cured one at a time. Ask most biologists about longevity, and they will tell you that aging is not even a single well-defined phenomenon, so attempts to cure it don’t make much sense. Medicine requires specific solutions to specific problems: the rarer the disease, the better.
I don’t disagree with those points, but if biologists do not dream themselves, then the task of dreaming about biology gets outsourced to people who have little practical experience in it, and the dreams of biology get a bad name. Worse, I think it is hard to inspire most 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds with the promise of curing diseases that will not affect them for 40 years. If we want to maintain the pipeline of brilliant people entering biology, they need to be driven by something bigger than curing a disease they have never heard of.
My goal here is to begin to compile a list of the grand visions or dreams for the future of biology. If we think 200 years into the future, what do we think will be possible? I have grouped them into six categories, but the list will likely be expanded over time as I learn of more. Please send me references, ideas, and criticisms, and I will try to keep the list updated.
Dreams of Health
The most obvious dreams in biology are the dreams of health: can we cure all diseases, and if so how?
Can we eliminate all infectious diseases the way we eliminated polio and smallpox?
Can we detect cancers early and eradicate every cancerous cell in the body so it won’t come back?
Can we eliminate death from disease? (And, if so, can we figure out how to support the population growth that will result?)
Can we regenerate limbs?
Can we accelerate wound healing?
Can we conduct a full-body liquid biopsy? I.e., can we actually measure all biomarkers from a single drop of blood?
Can we do somatic genome editing? I.e., can we modify every cell in an adult organism?
Can we grow organs in vitro? Can we grow entire humans in vitro?
Dreams of Understanding
Most of biology is still largely unknown, but some particular grand challenges stand out in our understanding of biological systems:
How did life originate on earth, or how could it originate elsewhere? Are there other possible biochemistries?
Can we understand how the brain works at a mechanistic level? For a worm? For a human? Can we record information non-invasively from the human brain? Can we map the human connectome non-destructively?
Can we image the ground truth of biology? Can we directly image where every molecule is in the cell at every time?
Can we create a full molecular model of an individual human cell? Of a bacterium? Of an entire human being?
Can we build an AI scientist that can do experiments and make inferences about the world as fast or faster than we can?
Can we get to a point where we can do experiments directly on humans? I.e., can we make new interventions safe enough that biology experiments in humans are as easy as psychology experiments? In particular, for neuroscience: can we do neuroscience experiments in humans? Imagine a world in which animal research was obsolete because it was not actually that much easier or more informative than experimenting in humans.
Dreams of Transcendence
Medicine focuses on restoring humans to a baseline state; but the natural extension of medicine is to ask whether we could ultimately improve ourselves beyond our baseline also:
Can we improve our cognitive abilities? Can we remove the need to sleep? Can we make ourselves more imaginative? Can we turn up certain traits (like creativity) and other traits (like attention) on demand?
Can we improve our physical attributes? Can we gain full control over our weight and muscle mass? Can we remove the need to exercise, or to sleep? Can we gain full control over our cosmetic attributes?
Can we solve the interface between humans and computers, or more specifically, can we improve on the peripheral nervous system as a BCI? Could we experience the video feed of a distant camera as directly as we experience input from our own eyes? Can we outsource specific functions (like math) to computing modules?
Can we replace our brains with computers? (And, if so, what would happen to our consciousness?)
Can we invent new states of consciousness?
Dreams of Creation
Before humans, biology was responsible for creating most of the high-complexity structures on earth.
Can we create entire structures out of biology? At the macroscale? (Can we grow buildings?) At the nanoscale? (Can we grow microprocessors?)
Can we create new kinds of life? Can we create chirally inverted life? Can we create life with different biochemistries?
Can we become much more efficient at creating life? Can we eliminate world hunger and malnutrition by making nutritious food ubiquitous and abundant? Can we pull down enough CO2 to offset historical greenhouse gas emissions? And, importantly, can we accomplish these goals without leading to ecological collapse?
Dreams of the Planet
Can we remediate environmental damage using biology, without that biology getting out of control? Can we build self-limiting systems for plastic degradation, and can we build systems for greenhouse gas removal and sequestration that will outperform industrial/chemical systems?
Can we improve our ability to communicate with animals? Can we ask mice how they feel during experiments?
Dreams of Exploration
Can we make humans biologically compatible with space travel? Can we harden human biology against radiation, and can we put humans into hibernation so that they do not age or die on trips of many decades, centuries, or millenia?
Can we use biology to explore space, but in a way that will not destroy new ecosystems we come across?
Can we use biology to make new planets habitable, i.e., can we terraform planets? And, if so, can we do so in an amount of time that is relevant to the lives of individual humans?
Why don’t we work more on dreams?
Identifying dreams can change what you work on, and identifying good dreams can help you to attract better talent. So why don’t we work on more dreams? The short answer is, I think it probably comes back to funding. As long as the people who allocate funding -- politicians, the voters that elect them, and the bureaucrats they appoint -- are older and more touched by disease, the vast majority of funding for biology research will continue to go towards curing specific diseases as well. I am hopeful that the growth of science philanthropy may allow us to diversify our portfolio of biology dreams in the years to come.