Polymath Jamie Metzl on AI, Genetics, and the Future
Where humanity is heading from a tech futurist and geopolitical expert's view.
Posted Nov 27, 2018
At a recent evening in San Diego, Jamie Metzl, J.D., Ph.D., a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, former White House Fellow, and Aspen Institute Crown Fellow, was conducting a modern-day “cacao ceremony” at Exponential Medicine, an event for innovators, clinicians, executives and investors in healthcare. Shoes off, sitting on floor cushions arranged in a circle, participants listened to the history of cacao prior to enjoying specially-sourced chocolate. The cacao ceremony was a metaphor for the interconnectedness of humanity. Complete with mind-expanding instrumental music, and ending in full-on freestyle somatic movement (a.k.a. dancing), full participation in the cacao ceremony favored the mindful, curious, and bold. Cacao shaman is a rather unexpected title from someone who competes in extreme endurance athletic events such as Ironman triathlons, marathons, and ultramarathons, and holds multiple degrees from prestigious, buttoned-up institutions. Metzl earned his Ph.D. in Asian history from Oxford and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University. Metzl is a true polymath — the technology futurist, geopolitical expert, prolific author, syndicated columnist, keynote speaker, entrepreneur, media commentator, and endurance athlete, is one of the most fascinating, and accomplished persons you will ever encounter.
Metzl has written five books and is a syndicated columnist. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, calls Metzl a “gifted writer.” Metzl is the author of Eternal Sonata: A Thriller of the New Future, The Depths of the Sea, Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975–80, and Genesis Code: A Thriller of the New Future.
His latest book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Revolution and the Future of Humanity, examines a future where “scientists are turning science fiction into reality” and “the very essence of what it means to be human is at play.”
Hacking Darwin is both prescient and timely. Recently, in November 2018, a Stanford-educated Chinese scientist announced that two female twins were born from embryos modified using CRISPR technology, a gene-editing tool, to remove the CCR5 gene with the goal of producing HIV-immunity. Metzl sees this as the “harbinger of our genetically modified future” and identifies the need “to start developing national and international norms, standards, and regulations” to ensure that “human genetic revolution plays out in ways that optimize benefits and minimize harms.”
Metzl states that we are “at the cusp of a genetic revolution that will transform our healthcare in the short term, how we make babies and the nature of the babies we make in the medium term, and our evolutionary trajectory as a species over the longer term.” George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, says Hacking Darwin is an “important and thought-provoking book” that “guides us brilliantly.” Notable futurist Ray Kurzweil hails Metzl’s latest book as an “outstanding guide to the most important conversation of our lives — how we humans will hijack our evolutionary process and transcend the limits of our own biology."
Earlier in the day, twelve hours prior to the cacao ceremony, Metzl, a faculty member of Exponential Medicine, presented on the main stage to the sold-out healthcare conference how humanity is at the edge of a genetic revolution, fueled by artificial intelligence (AI) and genomics.
“Artificial intelligence will touch every other technology,” said Metzl. “It will unlock genomics, nanotech, quantum computing, and all these other things.” He believes that whoever wins this technology competition is going to have a dominant role in the 21st century. “The more diverse the data sets, in some areas, particularly in genomics, the better,” he said. “But also, the bigger the data sets, the better.”
He predicts a future where there will be two main technology ecosystems, the greater China ecosystem, and the greater U.S. ecosystem, with two separate Internets, rather than a unified, global system. “China is all-in the technologies of the future,” he said. “That’s what ‘Made in China 2025’ is all about.”
“If you are on the wrong side of the technological revolution, it is not good,” he said. Metzl warns that if the United States doesn’t “keep the eye on that ball, not only can it impact the standard of living” for Americans, but also the position of the U.S. globally in the future.
For many authors, writing books is extremely time-consuming — requiring long blocks of uninterrupted time over a period of years. Yet Metzl is able to author books while simultaneously traveling the world to keynote speaking engagements, make TV appearances, and compete in extreme endurance athletic events. Metzl is a regular commentator on CNN, Bloomberg, and other global media outlets. Additionally, he has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS World Focus, Fox News, CBS News, and the BBC. His secret to time management is efficiency. “Time is gaseous, in the sense that if I have an hour to write an editorial, it will take me an hour,” said Metzl. “If I have five hours, it will take five hours. I try to be as efficient as possible.”
What Metzl has achieved in the seemingly disparate domains of athleticism and intellectualism is quite astonishing. Bestseller author, global humanitarian, and Executive Producer of the “Living a Life in Full” podcast, Dr. Chris Stout, says Metzl is “bordering on the superhuman.” Usually when you think of people who are extremely driven, intelligent, and efficient with their time, you tend not to think of the word engaging. Yet not only is Metzl engaging, but also he is warm, likable, down-to-earth, and humorous.
Metzl keeps a fast and challenging pace. He had just arrived on an overnight red-eye flight from the East Coast after running the New York City Marathon. Most people will have never competed in a single endurance athletic event. Metzl has raced in 30 marathons, 13 Ironman triathlons, and 12 ultramarathons. Among his more memorable races was the Taiwan Beast, a muddy 50K jungle ultramarathon in 90 degrees Fahrenheit heat with 4,000 meters of elevation gain over four steep mountains with more than 30 cliff faces, and 15 river crossings. Roughly only a third of all racers finish the Taiwan Beast — Metzl completed the treacherous course in under 19 hours of grueling athleticism.
Metzl maintains a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to nutrition, he is “totally against dieting.” He thinks “dieting is the worst thing you can possibly do because it cannot last by definition.” Instead, he advocates healthy habits. He avoids processed foods, and regularly eats plenty of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. One of his favorite indulgences is the occasional salted caramel chocolate soufflé.
He works out for one hour every day to maintain a “marathon-ready” physical baseline condition. “Working out an hour a day gives you on average an extra five years of life,” he said. He runs every other day, and on the other days, he works on strengthening, such as gym workouts, cycling, and swimming.
For everything that Metzl does, whether it is writing an article or training for an ultramarathon, he thinks to himself, “What is the core thing that I’m trying to achieve?” He identifies what the core activities he needs to do, and does it. “For anything, if you were just doing one thing, you could spend all of your time learning how to make the perfect omelet; and it would be a great omelet – but at a certain point you reach a point of diminishing returns, where the increases are marginal,” said Metzl.
Why do more than one Ironman triathlon, not to mention over twelve? Metzl answered this by sharing an anecdote from his recent red-eye flight to California. He was seated next to a recently retired national champion UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) cage fighter who saw his New York City Marathon shirt and struck up a conversation. Metzl was amazed to learn that the 42-year-old UFC cage fighter, who not only had a fused spinal column but also had broken over 50 bones in his body, was considering coming out of retirement. “I believe I can go out and beat these young guys — but running a marathon, that seems really tough — I could never do that,” said the former UFC cage fighter national champion to Metzl.
In the business realm, Metzl was a Partner of a New York-based global investment firm, on the Advisory Council to Walmart’s Future of Retail Policy Lab, and a Chief Strategy Officer for a biotechnology company. Metzl is politically active. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri’s Fifth Congressional District in Kansas City in 2004. Although he did not win, he does not rule out running for a government office in the future.
Prior to running the New York City Marathon, Metzl was across the globe in Armenia speaking at the Global Innovation Forum. As a geopolitical expert, he’s accustomed to world travel. Metzl has served as a member of the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Metzl was a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations in Cambodia, and an Honorary Ambassador to North America of the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. He has advised the government of North Korea on the establishment of Special Economic Zones. “I’ve seen more of North Korea than most North Koreans,” said Metzl. He was an election monitor in Afghanistan and the Philippines.
When asked what motivates him, Metzl shared, “I feel we have this limited time on Earth, and we have this set of capacities in life — some of which we know, some of which we don’t… it just seems that in this little bit of time that we have, why not explore what we are capable of?” Metzl believes we should “try and push ourselves in order to see where the limits may be.” As the quintessence of a modern-day renaissance man, he sets the bar high.
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