Royal Society Announcement: $10 Million Prize for Life’s Origin

At the Royal Society in Great Britain 31 May 2019, Perry Marshall and investor Kevin Ham announced the $10 Million Evolution 2.0 Prize.

The meeting was hosted by Oxford Professor Denis Noble FRS CBE; and Oxford Professor Paul Flather, President of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics.

Denis organized the revolutionary “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” conference, also at the Royal Society, in 2016.

Where did life come from? Where did the genetic code come from? The Evolution 2.0 Prize incentivizes the first person who can discover how code can emerge from chemistry. Such a discovery will bridge the gap between physics and biology.

Origin of Information (“Abiogenesis”) is the crucial question in the Origin Of Life. It’s also central to evolutionary change. It is the most elemental scientific problem that can be precisely defined. A solution may be as revolutionary as Einstein’s theory of relativity or the development of the transistor.

Transcript of the prize announcement at the Royal Society, London UK 31 May 2019 – Origin of the Genetic Code

Paul Flather, Oxford University: Welcome everybody and good morning. This is a very special occasion. I have the simple job, which is simply to welcome you and to introduce our main speakers, who will have the much more complicated task of explaining why we think this is a special moment.

We do think it’s a special moment because there is at the moment a fierce debate about evolutionary theory, and we think that we are in the middle of a fairly significant and radical change, so that the theories that were so brilliantly evoked by Charles Darwin and then his various successors, loosely termed neo-Darwinians, is now under challenge again.

I hope that our guests this morning will be able to explain a little bit about how this works and how exciting this is for our future thinking about how our bodies work; and maybe how thinking and machines and future inventions may be constructed. As I say, this is in a sense complicated, but complicated in an interesting way.

We can only marvel, as we understand more and more about ourselves, how amazingly our bodies have this power to engineer change in a way that’s way beyond our current capacities for understanding.

Even though people tend to marvel so much about artificial intelligence, we’re pretty convinced that cells are far and away ahead of the game.

The really exciting thing is to see how we can further our knowledge of the way cells can change, and their direction. It’s not a simple linear direction. It’s much more randomized, but nevertheless it’s randomized with a purpose. So I do think this is an exciting moment, and thank you all for joining us this morning.

My job now is to introduce our first speaker, Professor Denis Noble, who’s a scientist extraordinaire. We regard him very much as our dear friendly polymath. He’s a physiologist, he’s a biologist, he’s a philosopher, and he’s a linguist.

He’s also an activist. I personally got to know him best when he started a campaign to save investment and research in science – the famous Save British Science campaign in the 1980’s.

He first came to prominence with his work inventing a model of the human heart, which eventually led to the introduction and development of pacemakers, which we’re all familiar with.

He’s very much involved in these current debates around the idea of systems biology, and he’s expressed his ideas in two wonderful books, very easily readable, very accessible – The Music of Life and more recently Dance to the Tune of Life.

Denis, would you like to explain a little bit more about the current debates and what’s happening now, and the background to this prize which we’re going to be announcing shortly?

Denis Noble, Oxford University: Yes, thank you, Paul, for that. I’ll be fairly brief. It seems to me that, yes, there is a lot of discussion now about the fundamentals of biology. I was involved just three years ago in helping to organize one of the rare joint meetings between the Royal Society and the British Academy, which occurred in 2016 and has been published in the Royal Society’s journal, Interface Focus.

The articles in that issue, which are under the heading of “New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives,” indicate what is going on. It was an absolutely fascinating meeting.

Incidentally, the huge hall here was completely full. In fact, there was a huge waiting list for people to come to the meeting.

One of the people who was present was Perry Marshall, and I’ll come onto Perry in just a moment, and the prize.

The next significant development for me was meeting up with a remarkable bacteriologist at the University of Chicago, James Shapiro, who wrote this book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. James Shapiro worked for a period in the last century with Barbara McClintock.

Some of you will know that her major discovery was what we sometimes call “jumping genes,” the ability she found in chromosomes in corn for chunks of the genome to move from one part of the genome to another. She wouldn’t have called it the genome in those days. It wasn’t even known that it was DNA. It was the basis of the genetic material.

She received a Nobel Prize for her discovery of what we would now call mobile genetic elements in 1983, at the age of about 81.

Jim’s book explains how that led in turn to him questioning some of the fundamentals of the way in which DNA is interpreted. Nobody, incidentally and certainly not in this room, is challenging the importance of DNA, the importance of there being a database there that enables cells to pass on from one generation to another the valuable information that is in DNA.

I think what is common between certainly some of us is that DNA is more controlled than it is controlling. That’s the way I would put it, and that’s exactly what Barbara McClintock said too in her Nobel Prize lecture, which is published in Science. She said the genome is an organ of the cell, which I think gets the idea of causation the right way around.

That leads me to Perry. Perry, you’re extraordinary. You’re a business man. You have a reputation for marketing. You have bestsellers in books like 80/20 Sales and Marketing, The Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords, and Industrial Ethernet. But you end up also publishing a book which has a title not very different from James Shapiro’s, Evolution 2.0, where he has it as A View from the 21st Century.

I read this book very, very carefully because I found it initially a bit puzzling how somebody like you with your background, admittedly with technological knowledge – you started off as an engineer – but still I was intrigued to know to what extent were you getting any of it right.

And Perry does, more or less, because what he writes is not very different in terms of perspective from what I write in my own books.

When Perry approached me with the news that he had a number of investors willing to put up a major prize, I was intrigued.

Why should there be a prize?

As I see it, we’re adding various processes to the story of evolutionary biology, particularly the control by epigenetic factors and the fact that material can go down via microsomes to the germ line and so on.

But it leaves two things, it seems to me, then completely unexplained. How did life get going in the first place and what is the origin of the genetic code? I would regard those as the two very, very big questions for science today.

On how life got going in the first place, there are people trying very hard – Lee Cronin is a good example in Glasgow – to start with simple chemistry in a dish to find out how it could be that proteins might have evolved from simple structures to very much more complicated structures.

But we’re still a long, long way away from understanding how all of that could come together in a cell, and then eventually develop a store which is DNA.

I put it that way because I can’t see personally how DNA could have been there at the beginning. After all, DNA requires a cell to enable it to reproduce. It requires the cell also, incidentally, to correct errors in that reproduction replication process.

That then leads to the other big question. As DNA evolved, where did the specific code – what these three nucleotides mean, if that’s the right word, for this particular amino acid – where does that come from? Because with triplet code there could be many possible ways in which you could arrange that.

Did it happen by the chance chemistry, being that it went one way rather than another? In which case there’s no explanation at all. Or is there some good chemical reason why that code should be as it is rather than anything else? That would be important to question, like if we find life on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter or wherever we might eventually find it in the solar system, will we find the code is the same?

Will we find there’s a code at all? Or could it be you’ve got organisms that are essentially cells without DNA? That’s not impossible, incidentally.

I agree with you, Perry, that it’s the biggest challenge which, at the moment, we could say biology faces. I say the biggest because you might think the origin of life is even bigger, and in a sense it is, but I think this just conceivably could yield to the way in which the chemistry process enabled it to happen in the first place. I just somehow think there has to be a reason why it is as it is.

So when you asked me whether I’d be on the judging panel for this, I tell you my first reaction was that I don’t know enough. That’s what I said. I’m not sure whether George Church at Harvard said the same. I hope not.

Perry Marshall: No, he didn’t say that.

Denis: Good. And Michael Ruse at Florida State, who’s a philosopher – and incidentally, just to reassure those who might wonder whether there are any sort of metaphysical questions involved here, he’s a card-carrying atheist/agnostic, so at least we get that one on the table. We are a funny old mix.

Anyway, I think the best thing now, Perry, is you tell us why you decided to launch the prize. Why is it as big as it is, and where does all the funding come from? There’s a question. Over to you, and I’m sure you’ll get even more difficult questions from around the table.

Perry: Good morning. Thank you. It’s an honor to be here at the Royal Society. We’re here doubling the prize amount, and it’s the first significant activity I’ve had here in Europe discussing this. In the first 10 minutes I’m just going to give you the background and then we’ll do Q&A after that. And I’ll have a little word from Kevin Ham.

This story starts literally in this little Chinese bus in western China, where I went to visit my brother in 2004. My brother was an English teacher who was also working part-time as a missionary in China, and we had been having discussions back and forth because he was increasingly doubting the whole religious thing writ large.

Emails were going back and forth and we were discussing it, and when I got there I realized: he’s thrown this whole thing out the window. We’re pastor’s kids so this is a bit of a shock to my system, and a shock to the family dynamic, shall we say.

So I was feeling a little uncomfortable and we got into this argument. I would say that I retreated to my comfort zone, which is engineering, because I’m an electrical engineer. I say, “Bryan, look at the hand at the end of your arm. This is a nice piece of engineering! You don’t think this is a collection of random accidents, do you?” and he goes, “Hold on!” and he just came right back at me with the standard, “Perry, all you need is random copying errors of DNA and natural selection and millions of years and you’ll get a hand and you don’t need any engineering.”

I didn’t really have a problem with evolution per se, but I’d never quite heard it phrased quite that way. I’d always looked at my hand and said, “There’s something very, very intentional going on here,” and he was challenging that.

In a few seconds inside my own head I thought:

“Okay, I already know without pushing this argument any further that there’s a whole bunch of biologists who would agree with him and not agree with me. And I know from what I’ve done so far in my career and in school that there’s a lot of things in science that are very counter-intuitive.

“You know what? I don’t know.”

I said to myself, “Perry, why don’t you stop arguing with your brother right now,” and it wasn’t helping anyway, if you know what I mean. We’re trying to have a pleasant visit.

So I made a decision that when I get home I’m going to get to the bottom of this. He had already been dragging me with him against my will anyway, and I already had a whole cloud of religious and philosophical questions.

I said, “You know what? I’m an engineer. I know how to read a scientific paper. I’m scientifically literate. I’m going to go home and I’m going to let science make this decision for me. My belief system could completely change, and that’s terrifying, but you know what? Here we go,” and I just leaped into the void.

That’s how this started. What’s about to follow is a story of transforming what started as a philosophical and religious question and turning it into an engineering question and then eventually turning it into a prize.

I went home and I started obsessively reading and buying books. I’m an entrepreneur and, if you know entrepreneurs, they’re all obsessive/compulsive kind of people. Probably scientists are too, I’d imagine. I started buying books and going to websites and voraciously digesting things from all parts of the spectrum, everything I could get my hands on, and here’s what I discovered.

For a while I floundered helplessly. I was just inundated with information and I couldn’t make sense of it and I couldn’t figure out, “What’s the starting point with this? Which facts do you put first and which facts do you put second?”

One day I was trying to understand DNA, genetic mutations and genetic code, and I suddenly had this flash of recognition, and here’s what it was.

I had written this book here, Industrial Ethernet, for a major society of process control engineers.

If any of you have trouble sleeping tonight, this may help, but it actually turned out to be fascinating how all the 1’s and 0’s go on a wire and how ingenious all of it is. I was studying DNA and mutations and all of that, and suddenly I was like, “Wait a minute! I’ve seen all of this before. I know what this is!”

The diagram on the screen shows the dissection of an Ethernet packet on the top, and on the bottom transcription and translation of DNA, and you can see graphically how similar they are. Mathematically they’re identical. It’s encoding and decoding. It is a communication system. There’s an encoder, a message, and a decoder.

All the sudden, I had all of these familiar things that I could attach all of this to. I’m like, “Okay, I can start with this. I understand genetics. Genetics is digital communication. I understand digital communication because I wrote an Ethernet book.”

Suddenly a whole bunch of suspicions also came along, which took two or three years to later confirm, but it all just fell in place.

The ABC’s of a communication system is that you have an input that goes into an encoder. It gets turned into a message and then it gets decoded.

I send you a text message, it gets encoded on my phone, it gets turned into 1’s and 0’s, and it comes into your phone through Wi-Fi or what have you, and you read the message.

If what was put in corresponds properly to what came out, then communication has successfully happened.

On the left here is part of an ASCII table. 1000001 is a capital A, 1000010 is a capital B. In DNA, AAA is lysine and GGG is glycine. If you have an encoder, a message, and a decoder and a table, you have a communication system, and that’s exactly what’s in every biology book known to man.

As I started to explore this, I came to this realization that there’s a million codes, 999,999 are designed, and then there’s one that we don’t know where it came from, and it’s DNA.

Denis and I talked on the phone after the Royal Society meeting 2-1/2 years ago and I said to Denis, “Ten years ago when I was in the beginning of this, you could have pegged me as a card-carrying Intelligent Design guy,” based on exactly what I just told you.

To an engineer this looks totally designed. But there were a couple of things that caused me to shift my position to be very much in concert with what Denis and people like James Shapiro and others espouse. Maybe we’ll get into that later, it’s up to you, but I got very fascinated with evolution itself.

When I discovered Barbara McClintock, my inner geek just went crazy because she discovered that corn plants cut, splice, edit, and re-engineer their own DNA in real-time. To an engineer who was tempted to be a creationist, I suddenly saw this, and a whole universe opened up.

I’m like, “Oh, this is way, way more interesting than anything I’ve been told so far.” This was probably in 2006 that I discovered Barbara McClintock, yet it had taken me two years of reading and researching before I actually found it.

I’m asking, “Why isn’t this front page news?” so I became immensely fascinated with evolution itself. This is the greatest engineering problem ever, and neither of the camps, so to speak, are doing it justice.

Then you get to the origin of life and the origin of code, and it would be easy to just abdicate to a divine explanation. But I suspect that there are some principles here that science has not figured out. I still believe in God, but I don’t like the “God of the gaps” arguments. They routinely fail and we’re trying to get past this.

Here’s how the prize works. If you can produce a self-organizing digital communication system, we’ll write you a check for $100,000 and there are no other strings attached. The first person that shows up who’s done this gets a check.

But if your process is patentable, then Natural Code LLC will fund the patent and pay you $10 million for the rights for it; and partner you into the company so that you participate in the profits as it grows, because I think this would be extremely valuable intellectual property.

I think that origin of life, evolution itself, AI, and maybe consciousness are really the same single problem, not four problems.

And I think an answer to this question of “How do you get from chemicals to code?” would unlock the door to all those problems. That’s what I suspect. I don’t know that that’s true, but that’s what I suspect.

Why a prize?

Information is the central question in biology. Where does the information come from? How is the information processed? How is information from one species to the next in an evolutionary process actually generated?

Computer programs don’t rewrite themselves, but cells do. DOS did not evolve into Windows by itself, but bugs evolve into superbugs in 30 minutes. So there’s something that people in the software world don’t understand at all.

Alexa and Siri understand every word you say but they have no idea what you mean. Your dog doesn’t understand a single word you say, yet your dog knows what you mean.

There’s a fundamental difference between biology and human technology, and I think this would bridge that gap. A solution to this will revolutionize technology and medicine, for reasons that should be obvious, but we can talk about it in the Q&A.

Here is one of the reasons I wanted to have this meeting: Last summer I had a long conversation at Harvard with George Church. He’s the godfather of modern genetics, you could say. We talked about the risks and the dangers of gene editing and CRISPR. We can edit DNA as easily as inserting a picture into a blog post. You can buy a gene editing kit on Amazon for $169 USD with free shipping.

I think that the information question in biology has not been treated seriously enough. There’s not enough journals about it. There’s not enough books about it. Most people are dealing with this as a chemistry problem. I think it’s an information problem.

If we don’t take this information problem seriously enough, I think we’re going to make some very big mistakes and we won’t be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I hope we can talk about that today.

The judges are:

George Church from Harvard and MIT. Everyone in genetics knows who he is. He’s incredibly prolific with 143 patent apps. He’s a fascinating guy.

Denis Noble from Oxford, the first to come on board. He needs no introduction here.

Michael Ruse from Florida State University. The president of HeroX, who hosts our prize, said, “Perry, you’re a Christian and people are automatically going to think this is some kind of Intelligent Design publicity stunt. Can you get an atheist on your panel?” and I said, “Let me see what I can do,” so we got Michael Ruse.

I love Michael. He’s a hilarious guy. He’s also very friendly. He’s not combative. He’s been involved in many debates and discussions about science and religion. He’s been in some of the creation trials as an expert witness in the United States. You all know how different the United States landscape is with this question than Europe, so he came on board.

So I have these judges, and at NaturalCode.org we have the whole prize description. It redirects to the HeroX website. We have a ten-million-dollar prize, and I think we need a substantial sum of money to pinpoint the importance of this question.

Paul Flather: Thank you very much, Perry. So just to reiterate, what we’re announcing today is that the prize is now $10 million USD, and that’s completely new and a huge increase from previous thinking about it. It’s the first time, Perry, that you’ve talked about this prize beyond America, so this is in a sense trying to turn the prize into a global prize.

The third key element is that you’ve realized that this prize goes beyond chemistry and biology and engineering. It’s really about information, which is central to the way that we operate in society in terms of our body, so these are the major announcements this morning in the Royal Society in this very special conference room.

Perry: I believe this is the most fundamental question in science that can be precisely defined.

Paul: Thank you very much. We’re going to open it up to questions, but before I do we’re going to bring in a close colleague of yours, Kevin Ham, who’s kindly joined us and flown in this morning, who wants to add his perspective on this.

Kevin Ham: Thank you, Dr. Flather. I’m privileged to be here at the Royal Society. My name is Kevin Ham and I’m from Vancouver, Canada. I flew in for this occasion and the announcement of the $10 million prize. I’m one of the investors and I just wanted to give you the background story of how I came into it, which leads me to my childhood.

When I was 14 I was skating around on an ice rink. By suppertime I could barely bring my spoon to my mouth. By dinnertime I could barely walk. I ended up in a children’s hospital, admitted for an autoimmune disease.

While I lay in bed for the next few weeks I wondered if I was going to live, and if I did I decided I was going to be a doctor, so that was kind of like my mission in life.

At 16 I started studying and reading the Bible, and I came to believe there was a God. I did a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry, and then I got into med school, finished med school, and became a family doctor at age 30. While I was in my medical residency I saw 40 patients a day, 10 minutes per patient, and I just thought it was like a factory so I thought, “You know what? I don’t want to do this like a business.”

I knew that the internet was going to be a revolutionary medium, greater than any media revolution that we’ve experienced in history, so I decided to create an internet business. So I did that and it started making more money in one month than I did the whole year in residency, so I thought I’d do that for about six more months and then go back to medicine.

But I haven’t gone back to medicine. I’m still doing business.

I met Perry in 2016, about three years ago. We were having dinner and I wanted to meet him because of his 80/20 book. His book talked about 80/20 being fractal, so there was an 80/20 inside of 80/20 and that fascinated me. It totally changed the way I thought about business, about life, about everything actually.

We were having dinner and then he started telling me about this other book that he had written, Evolution 2.0, and that fascinated me.

After our 5-hour dinner I put my hand out and I said, “I’m in. I want to be involved in this prize.” He told me he was trying to get investors at $1 million in, so I said I’m in.

I was the fifth investor, and then we started having these annual meetings. We had our first one in Hawaii, our second one in Napa Valley, and our third one is going to be in Iceland this summer. Now the number of investors is double at 10 and it creates this very eclectic unique group of people from all walks of life, so that’s pretty exciting.

Part of the thing that I got from this was, “That makes a lot of sense, what Perry just described.” This genetic code, all of us with 23 pairs of chromosomes, multiplies and then it differentiates into diversified cells that become tissues and organs and billions of unique beings and species. Even with the same code you get different expressions of beings, even with twins and triplets and so forth, based on the external and internal factors. That’s just so amazing.

Then I thought, “Why isn’t this being taught in school?” I never heard of anything like this before. I was like, “Perry, this needs to be in the schools. It needs to be introduced.” I was thinking, “How is Perry, who’s an electrical engineer, able to understand and explain DNA and genetics better than I can understand it?” and I loved this stuff and studied it. I wanted to support this to get the information out into a broader arena.

Obviously the $10 million prize might be an incentive for people, a little bit more incentive than just – I don’t know how much you win in a Nobel prize, but…

Paul: It’s less than that. This is a wonderful challenge for us. Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin: Thank you.

Paul: This is a very informal meeting, so it’s open to anybody to ask questions of Denis and Perry.

Denis: Could I just report one thing to Paul before we open up, very quickly? A number of people who would have been very willing to come just found the time was too short. They include two past presidents of the Royal Society.

Martin Rees has had very interesting discussions with you, Paul, about this, seeing it not terribly different from the “Just Six Numbers” problem, which is the title of his book.

How on earth can one explain the constants of the universe in the models? Venki Ramakrishnan himself, the present president, is walking in Wales, which is your country. We wished him well, but he said he hoped the meeting would go well.

We’ve been in contact with around 10 Fellows of the Royal Society in total, most of whom are not able to come, but the interesting thing for me – because, I will be honest, Perry, I wasn’t totally convinced this is the right way to go at the very beginning.

I’m your skeptic, while being on-board fully in terms of being a judge. I’m a skeptic because I’m not totally sure that it can be done.

Nevertheless, I’m amazed and interested by the fact that a lot of the Fellows of the Royal Society we contacted said, “Look, we don’t know whether this can be done either, but it should be a challenge,” so I’d thought I’d just report that before we open up.

Paul: Thank you very much, Denis.

Audience: I didn’t quite catch the terms. I was noting them down, Perry. Tell me again the terms of winning the prize and the IP and all that, of how the judges will decide whether someone has done what’s needed.

Perry: This slide right here really summarizes it. If you can take some chemical process and, without cheating, get encoding, message, and decoding through some emergent property or what have you, then you’ve solved the prize.

And it doesn’t have to be the genetic code. It can be any kind of code.

It needs to have a certain number of symbols in it, and the specification goes into all that, but basically we’re just looking for exactly what you see on the screen, where you can draw an encoding table and a decoding table and see that it’s working correctly, and you’ve won the challenge. At that point you get $100,000.

Then the next question is, is this defensively patentable? And if it is, the investors are agreeing to pay for all the research costs and the patent costs. And when the patent is granted, then the discoverer gets another $9.9 million, making the total $10 million, and the inventor also gets a stake in the company, Natural Code LLC, and whatever intellectual property that we can commercialize or sell.

Audience: Why shouldn’t the discoverer just do it himself, just keep all the IP and bring in a lot of other investors? Why should he or she go to you?

Perry: They can do that. The discoverer can say, “I’m just going to go sell this to Microsoft.” Then you, as the discoverer, are going to have to go do battle with Microsoft and their attorneys. You’re going to have to get money out of this thing, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money to hire your attorneys to do all of that.

I’ve got a sheet here, listing some of the investors. I’ve got a guy who used to manage $60 billion for Mesirow Financial and was the president of the world’s 2nd oldest bank for their United States office. I’ve got very savvy serial entrepreneurs, marketers, investors, some of the smartest business people I’ve ever met… and remember, I’m in the business consulting profession.

I think a person has a much better chance of going into that gladiator fight, and coming out alive, with a bunch of guys who have a bunch of their own money at stake.

But yes, if somebody discovers this, they’re going to have to decide, “I would rather collect my $10 million and also work with these people.”

Audience: What would you see as the money-making applications of this system that would make it so valuable?

Perry: I think if you could pour chemicals in your bathtub and get digital communication to occur, you’ve created some kind of AI. And you’ve done something nobody in Silicon Valley has ever done. All of the AI in Silicon Valley is from guys typing on keyboards. This would be some kind of a naturally-occurring digital communication.

I think this correlates to origin of life. If there is a naturalistic explanation for origin of life; if origin of life is a proper scientific question, and not just an eternal mystery and not just a religious or spiritual thing with no physical answer; then there must be a process. And we don’t know what it is.

Every time you discover a major new principle in science, technological applications multiply. Einstein discovers E=mc2 and 20 years later we’ve got nuclear fission and things like that. The implications of theory of relativity or any of these things – I think it would be like inventing the transistor, except a new kind of transistor.

Audience: How complex does the message have to be?

Perry: It’s in the specification. It’s 32 states. The genetic coding table has 64. We arbitrarily decided that if it could represent 32 different states, that would be more than enough. If you go to NaturalCode.org and click on the prize requirements, there’s a document there that explains it all in exact detail. In fact, I wrote the specification and just about stole it out of an engineering textbook by Bernard Sklar.

Denis: What interests me about the question is wouldn’t there also be the natural discovery of redundancy?

Perry: I don’t know, but when I had that epiphany of, “Wait a minute. DNA and Ethernet are the same. That means there has to be error correction. That means there’s noise. That means there’s a signal in a noisy channel, which needs to have enough redundancy to make it intact. It means that if the first bacteria was 3 billion years ago, then that noise channel has had to be robust enough. It means that there has to be error correction.”

All of that occurred to me in about a minute, and then it took me two or three years to find out that, “Yes, all of that is true.”

When I discovered Shapiro’s work and found out there’s three levels of error correction. I have become obsessed and fascinated with this question, and I just don’t think enough people are interested enough in it. This is where the action is! We live in the information age and nobody knows where 1’s and 0’s come from. So now what?

Denis: I very seriously doubt whether Silicon Valley can do it. You see, there’s a huge difference between water and silicon, and I’m not just referring to the fact that they’re different chemically. In a silicon chip you point to the network of things. In water the very points that form the network are wandering around stochastically. I think that’s an enormous difference.

What’s the implication of that? If it can only be done in water, you’re going to have to recreate you and me.

Perry: I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. And I deal with AI every day because I’m in the online advertising business. Google and Facebook are spending billions of dollars on AI for that purpose. Whenever a big company like this tells you about their “smart” technology, you just need to insert a “not so” – “not so smart AI,” “not so smart Siri.”

Have your kids or grandkids ever played with Alexa? When they ask it questions, they’re doing the “Turing Test.” All computer codes and computers are deterministic, and I do not believe that biological organisms are deterministic.

Barbara McClintock demonstrated that in her Nobel Prize paper. She talked about plant galls. An insect burrows into a plant and the plant will develop a genetic rearrangement in response to that insect, and it’s unique to any particular insect that might be there, which of course is completely unpredictable.

I don’t think biology is deterministic, and I don’t think we’ll ever achieve real AI until AI is no longer deterministic.

Denis: But then it would have to become Artificial Agency, not artificial intelligence. There’s a big difference between AI and AA, and I think AA probably can’t be done with silicon. That’s the way I would put it.

Perry: I think agency is the real question here. Organisms have agency and we don’t know where it comes from or how it works, but it’s clearly there.

Paul: Can I ask a naïve question then? Does that not raise a whole lot of subsidiary questions about how you manage agency and whether you might be losing control of a whole new raft of evolutionary developments?

Perry: Yes. All the sci-fi movies and HAL 9000…?

Paul: I wasn’t going to go there, but in a way…

Perry: Let’s get it all on the table. First of all, none of that is going to happen as long as silicon is deterministic. All those scenarios are distractions from the fact that somebody always owns those technologies and is always pushing the buttons.

This prize is actually a little scary because if somebody figures this out… we might actually have the first Artificial Agency, and people may shrink back from that.

I’ve thought about this very hard. To just put it bluntly, I think it’s better if we own this than if Monsanto gets it. This could come with a ton of questions and responsibilities, but we need to talk about all of these things before we have it, not after.

I’m open to all those conversations. I’m not afraid. We need to think about these things.

Paul: Can I ask a more practical and possibly naïve question? I can see Denis and your two fellow judges who’ve had an application – in one sense the judgement that this is a successful bid is teleological in the sense that can it be patented, can it be applied? But Denis, how will you actually make a judgement about a successful bid? Is it possible? I think we know that in some ways science is continuous, isn’t it. There ain’t going to be “the final answer.”

Denis: It’s obviously possible to judge whether somebody has built a self-creating code transmission system because it will be there in the physical. So there’s no difficulty with the judgement.

The problem as I see it, and the reason why I say that I’m a skeptic of his judging panel, is that I even wonder whether it can be done. Now, that’s fine. Prizes can be very difficult.

A very interesting thing that Martin Rees said to us, a former president of the Royal Society and author of Just Six Numbers, is he said, “This is a bit like the Longitude Prize,” and everybody knows what the Longitude Prize was.

Perry: Why don’t you explain that?

Denis: It was the fact that ships at sea could work out a lot in terms of how time had progressed from observing the sky, but the big difficulty came from knowing where around the world in the longitude direction you were, because the sky will change as a consequence of that, in terms of time and so on.

It seems to me that Martin Rees got it absolutely right. That was very much like it. Was it the 19th century that that prize was announced? I can’t remember now. It’s even earlier, isn’t it? It’s a one-off.

Audience: Some Royal Navy ships went down because they didn’t know where they were and went into the rocks.

Denis: Exactly so, and that was what – 17th century?

Audience: It might 1700-something.

Denis: I think that’s right. That’s the 18th century, isn’t it? I think Martin’s got it right, though. This is a one-off. There isn’t a difficulty about knowing whether it has been won. The difficulty is can it be won? That’s the way I see it.

Audience: What makes you think it can be won, that it will be possible to create something and to discover it even? Maybe it’s nothing like DNA.

Perry: Yesterday at the Forum For Philosophy meeting, one of the ladies said to me, “Oh, then I imagine that your money is probably pretty safe,” because she’s a biologist and she knows this is a very hard question.

I said, “Well, here’s what’s interesting. Every time I sat down with an investor and pitched him on this and I said, ‘I’m asking you to sign a piece of paper that says if they solve this thing you’re writing a $1 million dollar check,” none of them were cavalier about it. None of them were like, “Oh, well, nobody’s going to win it anyway. Sure, what the heck.”

No. They read the Private Placement Memorandum and they went through the thing and they showed it to their lawyers and they looked at their books and everything.

How would you know that you couldn’t win this? I decided: the last thing I want to do is to be in the business of predicting what science won’t discover next.

Furthermore, I think this is such an important question that even if this isn’t solved, if people are trying to solve it, it will produce derivative insights, and the investor group is interested in those, too.

This is Shark Tank for biological ideas. This is not just a one-trick pony. We are interested in other things that people might bring to us.

We have had people bring interesting things to us in the past. We’ve had some interesting submissions. We have five submissions on the website you can go look at, and none of them passed, but you can read the descriptions and the explanations of what they submitted and why we didn’t approve them.

I think they’re very instructive and I think it’s a worthwhile question.

One of the things I learned from my parents was that you head straight into the wind and you tackle the hardest problem that you can tackle. I don’t know how to solve this. I have a few ideas of where the solutions might lie, but I don’t know how to solve it.

I’ve got to tell you a funny story. I was in Dubai a few years ago trying to raise money for this prize and I found myself in the offices of Emaar Corporation, which is the company that built the Burj Khalifa. It’s the biggest real estate company in Dubai. They’re worth billions, and I’m talking to the Director of Investments at Emaar. I showed him this and he totally got it. He didn’t miss a beat.

He was a very sharp guy. His name is Nasser Batha.

He goes, “Perry, I can’t fund this. This is not real estate and it’s outside of my charter so I can’t do this.

“…But I know who’s going to win this.”

“You do?”

He goes, “Yeah. It’s not going to be a scientist in a white lab coat at an American university. It’s probably going to be a 14-year-old kid in a Montessori school in some artistic country like Sweden or Italy.

“When he figures it out, everybody will go, ‘Dang, why didn’t I think of that?’”

Maybe that’s why I’m not willing to say this can’t be won.

Audience: But has this system got to be radically different from the DNA system?

Perry: It could be.

Audience: But it couldn’t, because a small variant from the existing system presumably wouldn’t qualify.

Perry: As long as nobody cheats. If somebody does an RNA-world experiment and the thing self-replicates and it goes and it goes… or if somebody does a Miller-Urey experiment that actually gets you encoding, message, and decoding, you win. You could do it in silicon. You could do it in salt crystals.

Audience: Okay, totally open.

Audience: You talked about this being a global prize. If it goes to maximize the chance of someone discovering it, that’s what you should be doing. And you said this is the first time you’ve spoken about it outside the States?

Perry: In any significant venue. I’ve certainly been on some podcasts and radio programs, but nothing like this. Really this hasn’t gotten the exposure that it deserves.

Audience: Do you have any plans to take it to Asia, and where would you go?

Perry: I’d love to do that. In fact, if any of you have some contacts in Asia, if there’s a scientific society there that would like to hear about it, I’d love to get on a plane and go do that. I love being here today. I’m honored to be invited. What a great opportunity.

Paul: Any more final thoughts or questions?

Denis: One thing I’d like to throw into the pot before we have lunch. I’m coming back again to the water or silicon issue and why water is such a good medium for life developing. There are many reasons, actually.

Water is a very strange substance, but the most important one here is the stochasticity.

I seriously think that the process that would lead to that being done is going to have to mimic the way in which, for example, our immune system works.

The reason I say that is that – how does it work, just to go through that very quickly. There’s a challenge, which is that an invader, a new virus or bacterium arrives, for which the organism does not have the correct DNA to make the right human antigen that would latch onto that invader. It’s a lock and key, of course.

So what does it do? It starts the error correction and allows trillions of new bits of DNA code to emerge, but just in the region of the variable part of the immunoglobulin, not everywhere in the genome. Otherwise, you’d destroy the information.

That is how I see stochasticity, and I have a strong suspicion that since there are millions of possibilities of interactions between chemicals, it’s almost certainly going to be the case that what does that searches through. That’s fine. If somebody comes up with a mechanism that enables you to harness stochasticity to do that, that’s even better.

Moreover, it’s the reason why I suspect it can’t be done in silicon, for precisely the reason you’ve got the automatic stochasticity of chemicals in solution. You don’t have it in a silicon chip.

There’s a clue for somebody out there.

Paul: Thank you all very much for coming. I’m delighted that we could have this meeting, and you’ve all come at relatively short notice because this meeting was added on to a very nice philosophical discussion meeting we had at the Forum For Philosophy, which Denis Noble spoke at and Perry was our very special guest.

It’s given us a wonderful chance to focus on this very exciting prize and to announce it. You’ve never announced $10 million before. I think it’s a significant sum.

Perry: We added a digit. I’m very happy about that.

Paul: Thank you, Kevin, for proving you’re one of our supporters of the prize, so we know that you’re not forced to be here, and you explained how you’ve voluntarily given your support. Thank you all very much, and now we have lunch.

Denis: And over lunch, if people could think of good ideas on how Perry might expand his judging panel, I’d be very delighted. Quite apart from anything else, I still don’t know whether I’m competent to judge this.

Perry: Oh, I think you’re quite competent, Denis. I think you’ll do just fine.

8 Responses

  1. June Antoinette Necchi says:

    Is the following theory relevant to these discussions ?
    Since everything has its polar opposite it makes sense that the mortal has its spiritual opposite ie that it is perfectly possible that life continues in a spiritual form after death.

  2. VB - Collier says:

    Here is a difficulty: the prize parameters specifically require a scientific discovery while explicitly rejecting theoretical submissions. This is as it should be, of course, for only the science (and consequent engineering) has monetizable value.

    However—as even the most cursory student of Kuhn knows—a scientific breakthrough of this magnitude is typically preceded by a theoretical “revolution.” It’s like asking for predictive calculations of planetary movement while clinging still to geocentrism. The causality will be hopelessly off-axis.

    A shift in perspective is needed first; and that will come in the form of new theory.

  3. Steven Wilson says:

    If you are indeed serious about miracles upon miracles upon miracles… then You must read The Surgeon of the Rusty Knife by John G. Fuller.

  4. Matt Verich says:

    I am a stage 4 cancer patient receiving checkpoint inhibitor treatment (anti PD-1) with amazing results. My time in treatment has allowed me to deep dive on the science of cancer and treatment. I am fortunate to have an amazing oncologist who has been working in immuno-oncology for 40 years. He has taught me much about the “spy-vs-spy” nature of cancer and the immune system; and the biological intelligence that seeks the entropy defying forces of meaning. He has a deep and thorough command of concepts of biological intelligence, meaning (purpose), and entropy. He is working with some collaborators on a paper that defines “the thermodynamics of cancer” which relies on biology, thermodynamics, and information theory. There is much in common with the ideas in “Evolution 2.0”. You may enjoy a discussion with him and his team.

  5. Gerald Marsh says:

    Those interested in the origin of life would find my book The Immense Journey of interest. It is available on my Amazon author page at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001JO8VRA and my website gemarsh.com. They may also be interested in the work of Jeremy England, a description of which is available at https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-thermodynamics-theory-of-the-origin-of-life-20140122/ .

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