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‘Cyborg’ scientist on creating the future

THEO PANAYIDES meets a bright young thing who describes herself as a cyborg, and dreams of using science to make a better world

“I have a chip in my hand,” says Elsa Sotiriadis, the day before her talk at TEDx University of Nicosia – and she doesn’t mean she’s holding a chip, she means in her hand: “A little NFC microchip the size of a grain of rice”. I run my finger over it, a tiny cylindrical lump in the crook between her thumb and forefinger. It hurt a bit to install (the implant was performed without anaesthetic) – but now it’s there, a small robotic part of herself, removable and reprogrammable. “You can programme it with your wildest fantasies – that fit into 88 bytes,” she laughs, giving it a beat before the caveat.

Someday soon, of course, that 88-byte limit will have grown exponentially. Some biohackers in the US already want to stream movies through similar chips, others are trying “to make an implant that lets users take phone calls directly in their inner ear”. This is her world, these are the kinds of things we talk about – brain implants and meat-free meat, beer that glows in the dark (via gene editing, not the addition of some chemical) and DNA nanorobots designed to kill cancer cells. Some guy’s even trying to bring back the woolly mammoth (more on this later). The theme of this year’s TEDx University of Nicosia is ‘Unbelievable’, and Elsa – who’s just become “a full-time biofuturist”, as described on her site – fits the bill nicely.

Her world is ours too, of course, a world determined by tech. People say “I’m dying” when they mean the battery on their phone is dying, notes Elsa wryly. (Meanwhile, Silicon Valley tech tycoons make sure their own kids grow up Facebook-free.) She’s not just a techie, though; let’s make that clear. “I see a lot of futurists who are just really excited about technology – and so am I; so am I, don’t get me wrong. But I [also] really care about the human experience in that technological future,” she tells me, sipping mineral water at the Landmark in Nicosia. Many in her field just want to dazzle their audience; Elsa also wants to hold its hand.

Take, for instance, the reason why she became an ‘augmented’ human, “officially a cyborg” as she puts it. Why the chip implanted in her flesh? “I did it to Tweet by hand-swipe and trigger a genetic orchestra!” she replies. “Well… the details don’t matter,” she adds quickly, doubtless noting my puzzled expression, “but it was to push new technologies into the hands of people, metaphorically but also literally”. What she means is that she did it as a stunt, something to illustrate her many lectures – she travels the world as a keynote speaker – but also to make a vital point: “Tech shouldn’t be something to passively consume, it’s something to co-create. And I see the future in the same way. It’s not just a future that gets issued to you. You create your own future.”

That’s the crux of the matter, and a reason why many people (some call them technophobes, but a fear isn’t always a phobia) have an uneasy relationship with these wild promises of a brave new world. There’s something remote, almost entitled in scientists’ certitude when it comes to tech. The title of Elsa’s TEDx talk – ‘The Next Tech Revolution Will Change Our Species Forever’ – is part of the problem, implying a future that’s inexorable; a future, like she said, that “gets issued to you”. She herself, however, is quite different, friendly and informal, with a smooth pleasant face and a gentle quality somewhat at odds with the high-powered world she inhabits. She’s (inevitably) an atheist, but makes it clear she respects the role of religion in people’s lives. She’s a bright young thing (in her “very early 30s”), but has none of the usual Millennial rancour against old fogeys: “The important thing,” she says, “is to not leave the older generation behind”. She tells me of her grandpa in Switzerland, who sends her a birthday email five days early each year to make sure it arrives in time, as though he were sending a letter – but the story is told with affection, without impatience for people stuck in the past. “I have a very, very strong connection with them,” she says of her grandparents.

Maybe it’s because her own past hasn’t been entirely outgrown, studded with what-ifs and missing pieces. Elsa’s an only child; her mum is Swiss, and an artist (she grew up “surrounded by art and sculptures”). Her father was Greek, but was never part of their lives – Elsa met him once before he died – leaving her only with his surname and an inchoate longing to explore her Greek side someday (even being in Cyprus is meaningful in that sense, she says). Science marches on, her own field of synthetic biology being “as exciting right now as the computer industry was in the early 70s, when the Apple II came out” – yet all of us, even scientists, are the sum of our quirks and personality traits, our experiences and early insecurities. Growing up as a “half-orphan” in a “struggling” family (I assume she means financially) surely contributed to Elsa being the way she is, sparking a subconscious desire for something greater.

“Imagine a tiny urban home in Switzerland – in Berne, the capital – right next to a railway track,” she recounts with practised ease (it sounds like something she says in her talks). “When I was seven years old, I used to read a lot of science fiction – and every time a train would thunder by, I would close my eyes and imagine this was the roaring thrust of a spaceship lifting us off to a better planet… And then I started wondering: ‘What if we don’t need to build a spaceship and leave Earth forever?’. Maybe we could use science to fix Earth. And that’s kind of how I grew up.”

Futurists tend to be prophets, oozing extravagant confidence – but Elsa’s own biotech vision seems more rooted in anxiety: ‘Using science to fix Earth,’ an anxious child’s dream of a better world. Her personal lifestyle seems to come from a similar place, carefully ‘fixed’ and curated; no longer anxious, because steps have been taken to prevent anxiety. “I just want to optimise my lifestyle for productivity and happiness,” she tells me. Actually, she adds, apart from the travel – she’s based in London but spends time in Amsterdam (with her best friend), Switzerland (her family) and the UAE (a special “someone”) – plus trips for keynote speeches and the like, “I have a super-boring lifestyle, because I have discovered the power of routines… Habits are really golden.”

What kind of habits is she talking about?

“Again, sounds boring, but I’m a huge sleep advocate. Sleep is literally an anti-ageing machine for the mind and body”. She always tries for seven to eight hours, “but I make sure I have quality sleep”, which means massively limiting alcohol – a big sleep disruptor – and investing in sleep trackers (her latest acquisition is a state-of-the-art “smart ring” called the Aura Ring). She’ll meditate in the morning for 10 minutes, once again with the aid of technology – “There’s an app, if the readers are interested. I use Headspace, I think it’s great, there are guided meditations if you’re new to it” – then go for a one-hour walk in Nature (Hyde Park, down the road from her house) in the afternoon; trees and plants “secrete phyto-hormones, or plant compounds, that are really, really good for us”. Elsa pauses, as if waiting for me to remind her that she is, after all, a person in her very early 30s. “Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of good times – but, at the end of the day, I just want to feel great, and that’s what makes me happy”.

No surprise that a scientist might approach her life in the rigorous style of a lab experiment. The uncontrolled variable is perhaps other people, and it’s also no surprise to discover that she is – or used to be – quite shy: “I’m naturally an introvert. And not just an introvert, but an introverted type of introvert”. (Not a tautology; there are many different types.) At school she was fine, just a bit quiet, but her many years of studies – Switzerland to Harvard as an undergraduate, a Master’s at Imperial College, a PhD at Imperial and Hong Kong University – pushed her deeper into her shell: “Working in isolation in the lab kind of becomes a lifestyle at some point”. She’s since made a conscious effort to get out of her comfort zone – working as a venture capitalist with biotech start-ups, for instance – and of course she travels the world as a speaker, events such as TEDx being the best place to meet kindred spirits.

It was actually at one such event that she met the woolly-mammoth bloke, George Church at Harvard who is indeed working to resurrect the long-extinct pachyderm. This is actually big news, because – as Elsa explains – the permafrost region (northern Canada, Siberia, and so on) covers 24 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere and contains “trillions of tons of CO2” which get released as the climate warms: “It’s like a slowly ticking time-bomb”. Bringing ancient herbivores back, however – animals which are able to thrive in that icy region – could literally save the planet, because the mammoths push away the layer of snow with their hooves as they forage for grass, and (slightly counter-intuitively) the snow acts as insulation, so removing it actually cools the permafrost down. This, she explains, is biohacking, “hacking genetic software to fix the Earth”. So it’s like Jurassic Park, I point out. “Yes, for herbivores. So it’s nice. It’s a nice version. Herbivore Jurassic Park!” she replies and chuckles. Elsa chuckles often, despite the world-shaking subjects we talk about.

They are indeed pretty world-shaking; our core values as human beings – how we love, how we reproduce, how we connect with others – are being upended, probably for good. It took 15 years and $2.5 billion to sequence the human genome, she notes: “Now we can do it for 1,000 bucks in less than two days”. It won’t be long before parents – but would it be all parents? – can simply visit “an app store for the genome of our unborn child, [with] a product catalogue of genetically-encoded personality traits. And so parents will apply some filters, then sit back and watch, like, the avatars of their child grow up – and then pick one, and incubate it, and have their perfect child. And that’s actually super-scary – because, in my time as a venture-capital investor, I came across a company with pretty much that exact business model.”

Or how about this one? “The next generation of wearables will probably be brain implants,” reports Elsa, meaning AI – much like her own implanted chip – which lives in our brain, regulates our neural patterns and lets us pick a mood, like the ‘mood organ’ in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the lines between science and science fiction are rapidly blurring). The catch, however, is that such implants work by establishing a baseline of ‘normal’ brain activity (this has already been tested, in people with epilepsy or PTSD) then shocking the brain back to ‘happiness’ when we get too angry, or sad, or passionate – all the messy things human beings do. “And that’s why,” concludes Elsa gravely, “an algorithm could kill our humanity, out of kindness.” And then you wonder why people are scared.

Elsa Sotiriadis is herself a science-fiction writer: she writes as ‘Elsa Solaris’ and her debut novel Replicon is now available for pre-order – a story, she says, “about dealing with aloneness in an ever more connected world”. Easy to imagine that it speaks to aspects of her own self, even perhaps that her work in synthetic biology might be an introvert’s way of unfolding her love for humanity – a secret way of shaking off anxieties by sharing them with others, a way of connecting with people by using science to fix the future.

What will become of us? Who knows? “It’s really up to us whether we build a utopia or a dystopia,” shrugs Elsa. “I just want to help people understand how biotech shapes our lives, so we can build a magnificent future”. And what about her own path in life? She shrugs again: “I’m just trying to be the best Elsa I can be”. Might the future take that literally, offering a multitude of cloned selves and allowing us to ‘be’ the best one? Let’s not go there.

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