The Future, According to Jamie Metzl

At the highest levels of business and government, his counsel is sought on matters of science, technology, medicine, ethics, politics and history.

Jamie Metzl has advised Walmart, a slew of biotech startups, and the World Health Organization. He served on the White House National Security Council and as an executive of the Asia Society. He led public discussion about the origins of the COVID-19 virus and founded an international movement to help address the world’s collective-action problem.

His credentials include a PhD in Asian history from Oxford University, a law degree from Harvard and five books, including two science-fiction novels and the non-fiction bestseller Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. A native of Kansas City, he received his undergraduate degree from Brown.

In a coffee shop near New York’s Central Park, where Metzl trains for ultramarathons, Brunswick Partner Raul Damas talked with him about the next stage of human reproduction, and why storytelling can help leaders of business prepare for a radically transformed future.

Given your range of interests, what’s your method for taking in information so that it’s not overwhelming?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by data and drown in it. That’s why we need to train our minds to do three things. First, be as open and curious about the inputs as possible. Then quickly form hypotheses. And then, most importantly, continuously challenge those hypotheses.

That process helps us find the stories that can serve as organizational frameworks in our minds and make sense of the world around us, the simplicity on the far side of complexity. Without those binding narratives, we’ll be overwhelmed by raw information. With them, we can more easily assess what data is most relevant to us and where it fits in our mental maps.

That human tendency to tell stories often includes a simple hero-villain dichotomy, and I think we saw that in conversation about the COVID pandemic. How would you respond to that?
Sometimes, that framework serves us well. More often, reality is more complicated. For example, even if the pandemic began with a lab accident in Wuhan, which I believe it most likely did, it could well be that Chinese scientists were trying to develop treatments and vaccines, with very good intentions, and made a mistake. Here in the United States, the NIH and CDC made a lot of mistakes, including by providing grants to Chinese labs with insufficient transparency provisions and messing up the testing in the early days following the outbreak. But that doesn't mean we should ascribe bad motives. I believe that in most cases people try to do their best within the systems and structures in which they operate.

So, we have to evaluate individual behaviors in the context in which people operate, their cultures, government systems and social norms. A binary “good people/bad people” framework often leads us to miss that rich contextual framework and a deeper understanding of the bigger story. When we do that, we limit our possibilities when we should instead be expanding them.

Throughout the pandemic we’ve heard “follow the science.” That’s seemed easier said than done. Why?
I believe in following the science, but that doesn't mean scientists are infallible. They are people like us, making decisions with imperfect information. In the earliest days of the pandemic, the available information was highly limited. Unfortunately, some people have become more dogmatic about “following the science” than the scientists themselves. Rather than blindly “following the science,” we should follow the scientific method. That means questioning what we know within the framework of scientific analysis.

I sometimes imagine the future so actively that I feel I’m living part of my life in it.

You've written about some of the most exciting areas of science, yet you still feel the need to write science fiction. Why?
Our ancestors didn’t learn through PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets but from people telling stories around fires. Our brains are wired for these kinds of stories. Many of the issues I think, write, and speak about are very technical. If I only speak the specialists’ language of science and technology, I'll only reach a narrow audience. But my core contention is that these technological innovations are going to transform our lives, including on the most personal and intimate levels. If we can't bring non-specialists into our conversation about that future, we won’t have the level of societal cohesion necessary to build a safe and inclusive future for everybody. By telling stories through science fiction, I am hoping to bring more people into the process of imagining and then building an optimal path from where we are now to where we hope to be in the future.

How did living in Cambodia in the aftermath of that country’s brutal past influence the way you envision the future?
Cambodian civilization has a very rich history. The Khmer Rouge idealized that mythical past but set about destroying the country’s modern civilization, and the people they believed represented it, in a bizarre and ultimately genocidal effort to return Cambodia to what they saw as its rightful glory. Obviously, that caused so much more harm than the problem they were trying to fix. Working in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand and later living in Cambodia helped me realize that while we need to be critical and interrogate the past, we often can’t be too radical in the change we seek. At the same time, there’s a danger in overly discounting the past, particularly when we have so much to learn from our past successes and failures to help us do better in the future. Although I sometimes imagine the future so actively that I feel I’m living part of my life in it, I also recognize that a future unmoored from a deep appreciation of where we’re coming from and the values we have developed along the way can be a dangerous one.

You’ve written about how genetic diversity leads to resilience. How should business leaders go about engineering the diversity necessary to build resilient organizations?
In certain respects, companies have to become monocultures to achieve singular goals in a competitive world. But in business, as in biology, if you don't have diversity you aren't going to survive change. Effective organizations need to have the possibility of evolution – and even revolution – woven into their organizational DNA.

The question for companies is: How much diversity can you inculcate into the culture and structure of your company so that you have enough diversity to maintain resilience, but not so much diversity that you're not able to maintain focus and achieve your goals? There's no easy answer to this, and striking that balance is an essential function of organizational leadership. There are two key elements to finding it. The first is to ensure that you have some people on your team who will focus like a laser-beam on just one essential job. The second is to have others who are broader, with a more diverse set of skills and approaches. These category-busting people need to be at every level of an organization, not just in strategic planning.

Then you need a culture that balances getting specific jobs done with being open to change and a process that matches people to the types of tasks best suited to their unique abilities. You need to reward people for raising their voices and listen to their ideas. You never know where innovation is going to come from.

Can you tell me about your OneShared.World initiative?
The fundamental problem of our world today is that our species has developed godlike powers through our technologies, but we don’t have the systems in place to ensure we will use these powers wisely. Whether we like it or not, we now have the increasing ability to fundamentally transform, or even end, all of life on Earth. The biggest challenges we now face are global and common, yet we don't have a framework for addressing that entire category of problems. That's the through line between climate change, pandemics, nuclear weapons, and so many other issues that are all individual manifestations of the broader global collective action problem.

Unless we recognize and address this meta-problem, we'll be continually jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. End this pandemic, there's another pandemic around the corner. End all pandemics, there’s climate change. Fix climate change, nuclear war gets us, and so it goes.

To keep us from playing Russian roulette with our survival, we need to upgrade our global operating system. The good news is that we have historical experiences of making step changes in how we're organized. In 1648, after the Thirty Years War, we established the concept of the modern nation state through the Peace of Westphalia to address the issue of overlapping sovereignties. When these states competed with each other to near oblivion, American and other leaders established the United Nations and Bretton Woods systems after WWII in an effort to temper interstate competition with new concepts of shared sovereignty and universal rights.

The bad news is that these historical organizational quantum leaps have tended to happen after devastating world wars. We're now at a historical transition point and the question for us is whether we can make the changes we need through a positive and hopeful movement or whether we need to wait around for a major global catastrophe— a much deadlier pandemic, a climate collapse, or a nuclear war—to make us realize what is required.

If we want to our global systems upgrade now, as we should, we’ve all got a role to play in bringing that about. We’ve got to build an empowered global constituency demanding that the leaders of all organizations on all levels do a better job of balancing our narrower interests as citizens of one country, or customers and shareholders of one corporation, alongside our broader interests as humans sharing the same planet. We need to recognize that the only sustainable future is in a world where we all recognize and realize the mutual responsibilities of our deep global interdependence. OneShared.World is our effort, impossible though it may seem, to spark that change.

Our future as a species is not human or AI, but human plus AI. 

You’ve written about the array of options parents will soon have in selecting their offspring’s genetic traits. What should the parents of the future select for if they want to raise successful people?
If you’d asked the dinosaurs what traits would they want to select for in their children, they would probably tell you, or roar to you, about being big and powerful with sharp teeth and claws. But it turns out that after the asteroid hit, being a cockroach was a much better bet. While it may be possible for us to surmise what traits may be particularly advantageous now, we have no idea what will be most beneficial in the future. There is no good or bad in evolution, only better and worse situated within a given context. When that environment changes, the best adapted organisms from the old system can become the worst adapted in the new paradigm.

On the other hand, we know that nature has something of an error rate. Random mutation leads to some children being born with deadly genetic diseases most of us would want to prevent, and I do think parents in the near future will select and alter pre-implanted embryos in the name of perceived health and well-being. That will be the start. Over time, we will use these technologies to give our future children additional capabilities and make it possible for them to live in environments other than the ones we have so far evolved to inhabit.

Will humans be able to compete with artificial intelligence agents in the future?
The great leaders of the future, like those of the past, will be great humans. There are many things machines do better than we do today, and that list will grow significantly over time. That will destroy entire occupations but will also create new opportunities for us to over-index on the core relative capacities of being a great human – compassion, creativity, insight. These are capabilities we often undervalue today. Today, there are a lot of people who are incredibly successful, and justifiably so, because they have incredible raw processing power and great pattern recognition. But I don't know whether that's always going to be the case or that the kind capabilities that make somebody successful now in one field, running a hedge fund or being a radiologist, will be the same in the future. We need to let our machines do what they do best and not try to compete with that. The most successful people, companies, and countries will be those who do best inspiring and harnessing the best of what makes us human relative to our machines. This will be even more complicated because our machines will evolve over time. But then again, so will we. Our future as a species is not human or AI, but human plus AI.  

How has COVID affected adoption of genomic technology in medicine?
It’s undoubtedly been an accelerator. Even before COVID-19, we were moving from our world of  generalized medicine based on population averages to our new world of personalized or precision medicine, based on each person's individual biology. The mRNA vaccines are exciting, but it’s even more exciting that the mRNA platform can be used to deliver all sorts of other interventions. They are helping move us toward a future where we don’t all take the same treatments, but ones tailored to our individual biology. That’s truly personalized healthcare, and it’s coming faster than it otherwise would have thanks to the pandemic, which was so awful in so many other ways.

How do we prepare for that new world of healthcare?
As we learn more about our own biology, our healthcare will continue to shift from our current system of symptom-based sick care to a new world of truly preventive healthcare. As exciting as this is, it can also be frightening. The same technologies that can help us and expand possibilities can also, if we are not careful, be used to harm us and to limit them. That's why there's so much work to do now, not just to realize this vision of predictive and preventative health, but also to optimize the benefits and minimize the harms of our godlike technologies.

All technologies can be—and will be—misused if we don't have sufficient regulation, governance, and ethics. Science brings us to the conversation, but the real work is ultimately about values.

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Raul Damas is a Partner and leads the US health practice at Brunswick. He previously held senior positions with the George W. Bush White House and Pfizer.