Over the last decade, we have witnessed technological leaps of a magnitude that exceeds our wildest dreams. In the life sciences, the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas gene editing tool has opened up possibilities for research and novel applications that inspire hope but also pose existential questions: which technologies should we develop, how can we make sure they serve humanity well, and which powers should rather be left untouched? Kevin Esvelt, director of the Sculpting Evolution Group at the MIT Media Lab, was confronted with such questions after developing a technology called gene drive, which has enormous potential for good, but could also forever alter life on earth. By changing the entire genetic code of a wild species such as malaria-spreading mosquitos, we could eradicate diseases and prevent millions of deaths. On the flipside, these interventions can be undertaken by researchers working on their own – and unlike medical research, people won’t be able to opt out of the effects. Clearly, it can’t be scientists alone who make such decisions with irrevocable consequences for all of civilisation. At Falling Walls, Kevin shares his personal experience of making an awe-inspiring discovery that turned him into a tireless advocate for a reformed, open, and responsive scientific system that closely works for and with all parts of the population.
Kevin Esvelt is the director of the Sculpting Evolution Group and Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Kevin is both an expert in genetic engineering as well as a trailblazer when it comes to scientific transparency and ethical research. The gene drives he works on have the capability of introducing long-lasting, fundamental changes into the ecosystems they are implemented in because they can change an entire species’ genetic code. At the same time, he is a vocal and active proponent of responsible and transparent science, going to great lengths to include the communities he works in into the decision-making process. Combining these two important endeavours, Kevin has be-come a breakthrough scientist as well as a science communicator who empowers the people his research will affect.