♪ Christiane: Hello, everyone.
Welcome to "Amanpour and Company 's care is what is coming up.
Israel grinds to a halt to stop what people are calling Prime Minister Netanyahu's controversial judicial coup.
Tzipi Livni joins me live from there.
Plus -- >> Retirement age outrage, protesters in France take aim at the government's plan to make them work two years longer.
I asked Sophie Pedder why a pension reform is so taboo, in the form U.K. ambassador to France on King Charles cancel state visit.
Plus -- >> We are able to control biology in ways we never have before.
Christiane: Decoding disease.
A journalist talks to Walter Isaacson about the life and risky job of rewriting DNA.
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Christiane: Welcome to the program.
I am Christiane Amanpour.
A stunning display of resistance in Israel may have finally stopped prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu."
Plans's for now.
In the face of massive protests and strikes, his coalition partner says the proposal is tabled for the moment but it will be brought up as soon as a month from now.
Whether that will be enough to calm the outcry is yet to be seen.
Critics both inside Israel and abroad say the Israeli media is making a troublesome slide towards autocracy.
Let's go straight to had us gold in Jerusalem, our correspondent on the ground.
Tell us about the actual state of play on the ground as you have been reporting all day?
Hadas: this has been an incredible 24, 48 hours.
While there have been protests for more than 12 weeks with Israelis taking to the streets in protest of this judicial overhaul, the last few hours has seen a shift to a new escalation.
This is because Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for daring to speak out against these reforms.
He called for a halt that the defense minister was fired Sunday evening.
That sparked new protests overnight, that were angrier than the ones I've seen before.
Then today, a historic moment, the largest general strike in Israeli history.
Everything from the airport, to the ports, nurses, shops, even McDonald's went on strike in Israel as a result of this judicial overhaul, as a result of protesting against the defense minister firings.
That lead to protesters in the streets in Jerusalem.
What is different today is the right wingers, the people who are in favor of these reforms, people who are supporting Netanyahu, are coming out to the streets as well as counter protesters.
They are heeding the call of the national security minister, if our right wing figure.
There is a lot of fear that there will be clashes between protesters, that this bloodshed the Azusa Raley president warned about several weeks ago will come to pass as these protesters face off against one another in the streets.
Christiane: That is a dramatic escalation of getting two sides to face off, if that happens.
We will keep watching it as will you.
Thank you very much.
Let us turn to the former Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni.
She says like many of the critics that this is a struggle for the soul of Israel and so many people going on strike including Tzipi Livni, many diplomatic outposts around the world.
Are you surprised by the level of anger and the unity of purpose, certainly by the workers?
Ms. Livni: it is touching.
It is moving.
For 12 weeks, we took to the streets, rallies, demonstrating.
But yesterday, something changed, and the fact that Netanyahu decided to fire the minister of defense created such rage and understanding that this cannot continue like this.
And people just took the streets during the night.
Netanyahu understood that he cannot continue.
Although on Thursday, he said he will continue.
But hopefully today, he will say that he is stopping this.
Christiane: Let me ask you, what if he says that, and it is just a pause.
What is the best case scenario that you can see from where you sit right now?
Ms. Livni: the best case is Netanyahu will announce he is stopping everything because it is not just one bill.
It is a group of different legislations taking care of him personally, his family, his political partners, exemption of serving in the Army, against equality.
It is not just one bill.
Apparently, in the last 12 years, we discovered that these are not just judicial reforms.
It is about what is the nature of Israel, is -- if Israel will remain a Jewish democratic state, or nondemocratic, I don't know, dictatorship or more religious country?
It is really about the soul and it is about the nature and the identity of our country.
And this is why it is so encouraging to see a new camp that was born, believing in the Declaration of Independence, fighting for and believing in democracy.
It's good news.
Christiane: And why do you think for this coalition you have described on the streets, why do you think it was the firing of the minister of defense -- what is so important?
What was so dramatic about that?
Ms. Livni: I think that until yesterday, there was a debate whether the judicial reform, dramatically changing the nature of Israel, those who supported it, phot that OK, I am in the camp that demonstrated it is exaggerating.
The idea of the prime minister firing his minister of defense, just because he made a statement saying that this -- these are reforms affecting the Army, Israel's security, he told it to the prime minister discreetly at first.
But decided publicly.
That is more like a disk -- like a dictatorship, that the leader is firing somebody just for speaking out.
This is something that is the responsibility of the defense minister to say to the public.
Christiane: And of course, we have seen so much of that in other countries that would be considered autocratic.
Firing those who stand against a leader.
Ms. Livni: exactly.
Christiane: you just heard Hadas, the religious leaders issuing public calls to come to the streets.
You heard your own president a few weeks ago worried publicly about the fabric of society being torn apart, disruption.
Some have used the word internal Civil War.
What worries you now about the others, these far right people, calling on their supporters?
Ms. Livni: First, I hope this evening will pass without casualties.
I called Netanyahu earlier today.
I told him, listen, you know you are going to stop it, why wait until we have demonstrations on both sides, demonstrating in the same place?
I hope we will pass this evening without casualties.
But I don't want to undermine the situation, or underestimate what we are facing.
There is a huge debate in Israel that was underneath the surface until now.
Whether the meaning of a Jewish state is a religious country, or just from people from a national perspective.
What does it mean, democracy?
Christiane: Netanyahu is about to speak, we will be back with you.
PM Netanyahu: Citizens of Israel, 2000 years ago, here in Jerusalem, the Solomon trial happened.
Two men came in front of King Solomon and each one of them claimed that she is the real mother of one child.
Kings element -- King Solomon asked to cut the child into two.
One-woman -- one woman was ready to cut the baby.
But the second woman refused.
She wanted the baby to stay alive.
Even today, the two sides from the political debate, they claimed that they love the child.
I am aware of the tension between the two blocks.
I am listening to the will of the people.
But there is one thing I'm not ready to accept.
There is a minority that is ready to tear our country apart.
And are threatening with Civil War, and to refuse to perform, which is a crime.
The state of Israel cannot continue with people who refuse to serve the Army.
Christiane: He just started with the famous history lesson about what happened when King Solomon had to make that decision.
And he said, I am listening to the will of the people.
So, what do you think is going to happen next?
He has already passed part of this on a third reading, has already passed part of this reform.
Ms. Livni: It looks like it is just the beginning of his speech, so it is too early to say.
But it looks like he is using something that his supporters used to say, that this is Solomon's decision between the real mother and the not real mother.
An example that I hate, because we do believe that both sides believe that they are the real mother.
And I hope he will not take it as an example, but really, the real question is whether he is going to stop or postpone it.
And if he postpones it, whether we will face real negotiations or dialogue between two parts of not only political science, but -- political sides, but society.
And the gap is huge.
It is not just about how many will be in the judicial committee that is nominating the judges.
Is deeper than that.
We need to understand.
Christiane: So what is it?
Tell us then, what is -- because they will say, it is just like Canada or it is just like the government needs.
Ms. Livni: No, it is completely different.
What we are having now is a Jewish democratic state, meaning in the Declaration of Independence, nationstate for the Jewish people with equal rights to all of its citizens.
Now we are having a government, a combination, that for them, equality for women and LGBT, no way.
They don't want to serve in the Army, something that is forced by equality.
This is one part.
The other are the national religions.
For them, they believe in greater Israel, they want to have annexation.
For them, democracy, or a strong and independent Supreme Court, meaning also that they need to explain what they are doing in the West Bank.
And they cannot do whatever they want in the West Bank.
And what they want is annexation and less democracy.
On top of this, you have a prime minister whose personal trial is going on, and he wants to delegitimize the police, the Attorney General, and the court.
This is a combination that never existed in Israel.
And it brought up, on the surface, something that was really, we discussed it, but it was not that clear that we believe it completely, two different Israel's.
This is the discussion that needs to be done.
Christiane: How does that get resolved?
Right now, Netanyahu is saying there is a minority in the country ready to rip it apart.
Is it a minority, first and foremost?
And is there a plurality or majority in Israel to have a completely different Israel?
Religious Israel, an Israel as you just mentioned with no democratic Israel, if it means a permanent occupation of the Palestinians.
Where will you say the people are?
Ms. Livni: It could have said it is about a minority for the election, or a day after the election.
It cannot say it, after looking at all of these young people, demonstrations, taking to the streets, fighting for democracy.
We had five rounds of elections that were mostly anybody but Netanyahu.
It was fairly personal.
Now, it is about substance.
It is about values.
So he cannot say it any more.
But the good news is that I believe that we don't need to reinvent the wheel.
In our Declaration of Independence, it is written, and all of the different parts of the Jewish leadership at the time when the state of Israel was established, supported it, including that.
I believe that and I also believe that voters do believe in Israel as a democracy.
And the minority groups are the national religions that are trying to change the nature of Israel.
And for his own political reasons, he gave them a blank check to do so.
Christiane: And now he is apparently going to give one of them a blank check to create and oversee a new National Guard.
And another of them, the finance minister recently, and bb had to distance himself from this.
He said, there is no such thing as Palestinians.
He stood on the podium including the map of the West Bank and Jordan, and this is what he said.
>> We need to tell the truth in force, without bowing to the lies and distortions of history.
And without succumbing to hypocrisy of the pro-Palestinian organizations.
There is no such thing as Palestinians, because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.
Christiane: He is saying the same thing as Putin says about Ukraine.
There is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people or culture.
It nearly created a big -- this is hurting you abroad as well.
Ms. Livni: I know what is the impact abroad, but as an Israeli, this is terrifying.
Because I believe this ideology does not represent the values of Israel.
The day after the elections, I was sad, I did not want Netanyahu to win, but I had optimism.
When he gave them a blank check, when he is in the Ministry of defense in charge on the West Bank, and they have the power to create a National Guard, this is against the values of Israel and this is a debate that needs to be done.
I'm not against -- the idea is not just to say, that's over, let's not discuss it.
We need to speak about it.
This is the real dialogue that we need to do.
In the good news is when Israel is understanding the importance of democracy, they will be, hopefully in the future, against annexing the territories.
And therefore, hopefully they will support the idea of peace and dividing the land.
But it is too early to say.
Christiane: I know you want to talk about inside Israel, but how should Israel's chief partner and supporter, the United States, be reacting right now?
Ms. Livni: I think since I'm familiar with the vision and the Biden administration, that truly supports about -- supports democracy, the idea of two states for two people, so clearly this is the message the government should hear from them.
And supporting for us as demonstrating for these values, it is quite encouraging to know that we are being supported.
The choice is not between supporting Israel or not.
But supporting the values, the -- that are being represented, in Israel, because Israel is a democracy.
But we need to keep it as such.
Most support we are getting for doing it inside Israel is encouraging.
Christiane: Tzipi Livni, former Foreign Minister on this incredible day, thank you for joining us.
We are going to turn out to another country in the grip of protests and strikes.
That is France.
A nation no stranger to that, but is clear president Macron has hit a nerve with his people by taking on the apparently taboo subject of retirement age.
Upping it from 62 to 64 paired protesters are angry that he pushed through this bill without a formal -- formal vote.
A strike against pension reform is planned for tomorrow, this FMS of protests on Thursday, some of which turned violent.
King Charles was meant to begin a state visit today, that is being called off until further notice.
In a moment, we will speak with a former U.K.
Ambassador to France.
First, for the latest from the streets, the economist, Sophie Pedder.
She hasn't in a book on Macron, called "revolution francais."
Protest on the streets in Israel, protests in Germany, protests in France.
What is it you have been tweeting and writing a lot about it -- what is the heart of what has really turned the people so angry right now?
Because Macron, he campaigned on this issue.
He won his second term on this issue.
Sophie: That's absolutely right.
It was very explicit.
I think the problem started when he lost his majority in parliament last year.
Even under the fifth Republic with its incredibly powerful presidency, the president still needs parliament.
He did not have a majority there.
This has been the source of all of this last minute scrambling around for votes, trying to get it through parliament.
He could not do it.
He had to use this controversial article, which is perfectly constitutional.
It is part of the fifth Republic Constitution, but it politically was complicated.
Combined with the fact that nobody ever is going to want to be told to work longer in life, and at a time where cost of living has created this unfortunate circumstance.
Whereby people are angry at what they are being asked to do, at how it was done, and they feel that they are not going to give up trying to force the government to back down, even though it has already gone through the parliamentary process.
Christiane: Let's say it again, this will lift pension age by two years.
He already compromised because he wanted 65.
This is going to be taking effect, if it goes through, by 2030.
You say that people are angry about having to work longer.
But compared to many in their neighborhood, it is not longer, of course.
United Kingdom, 66.
The United States, 67.
All of these countries have older retirement ages.
And the French have something about like 14% on GDP pensions, which is double the OCD -- OECD average.
It is not a crazy, out of step reform that he is trying to bring.
Why is it so taboo in France?
Because many presidents have tried it.
Sophie: They have.
One thing is nobody looks at other countries.
Macron has tried to make this argument, and he is trying to apply a rationality to the situation, which I don't think the French or listen -- French are ready to listen to.
They don't want to hear what the retirement age is in other neighbors in Europe.
What they want to know is that they belong to a society which has different values from other countries.
And if you look at recent history of retirement age, it was medium high in 1982, brought down the age.
He brought it down to 60.
That is the idea that you create this civilization whereby you have a right and a better -- a certain value, social pressure -- it is part of that.
Therefore, now to suddenly be told, sorry, that sense from which history was moving is coming to a halt, and you were going to have to go backwards.
It is seen as an affront, on top of the fact that it is a social crisis.
You are absolutely right.
Macron campaigned with this.
It was in his manifesto.
French reelected him.
There is this incredible contradiction at the heart of this and pass that France has got itself into.
Christiane: Just to point out, micron did campaign on this --Macron did campaign on this.
Two very important differences here.
But just like there, you have people on the streets, and there could be violence.
There has been some violence.
Where do you see, in Netanyahu has had to step back for the moment, where do you see Macron --Macron going with this issue?
Sophie: I think there are a couple things that have to happen now.
In a number of weeks, the Constitutional Council will be -- will judge whether or not this reform is constitutional.
Until that happens, it can't be written onto the statute books.
There is a sense among those who are protesting that they have time to try to force the government's hand.
As you know, in recent history, the French Street has brought down not just governments, but it has forced governments to back down.
If you look at 2006, the Prime Minister then, he had a legislation written into law that he revoked after street protests.
People who are on the streets today, and we are expecting another million tomorrow, they know that.
There is a force on the streets that does have empirical demonstrations that it can work.
I think Macron, from what I know about him, I don't think he is in any mode to back down.
If think he feels it is legitimate reform.
He feels it is in the national interest.
He says, I don't like having to implement this, I think France needs it.
I know it is unpopular but I think it is the right thing for France.
At the moment, he is good to have to hope public opinion will come around or become resigned to the fact that this peaceful legislation will be written into law.
And he will hope that he can use public opinion to strengthen his hand against that of the street.
Christiane: Before I leave you, very briefly, you have written about him and you know his angu aise is to be replaced by Le Pen.
He cannot run again.
He is concerned that populism might follow him.
Briefly, is that a legitimate fear now?
Sophie: The next French presidential election is in four years, 2027.
I think we are quite a long way off that.
There is time for things to change.
Nobody had heard of him two years before 2017, or at least not thought of him seriously.
There is time, but there is a dark threat that hangs over all of politics of the moment.
That if he can't calm France and bring about results in France, than there is that threat for.
In four years time.
Christiane: It is an incredible thing to be watching.
Sophie Pedder, thank you.
Joining me in the studio is the former U.K. ambassador to France.
He also worked for Charles when he was Prince of Wales.
I say that because in all of this, and welcome to the program, the king has had to cancel his visit.
The president of France, I guess, I don't know, how does it work?
The president calls him and says, may be a little bit later?
How does that work?
>> Thank you for having me back.
What actually happens is even on things like this, the king follows the advice of the government.
This is very constitutionally proper.
What happened was the French government got in touch with 10 Downing Street in London and said, we wanted to go ahead.
But actually the situation is getting out of hand.
Think probably, the balance was tilted in favor of postponement.
They had announced another day of action on Tuesday.
People were saying, this may get worse before it gets better.
The Prime Minister and the president agreed it would be best to postpone.
And as a courtesy, president Macron calls the king and says, I'm sorry, I think this is not the time.
Christiane: Behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, it just would not have worked.
Macron is in the middle of this.
It would have been palmed and ceremony and circumstance and Royal.
That would not have gone down well.
Peter: More important than that, because this is part of the relationship between Britain and France after a difficult time of Brexit.
A successful but short summit between the Prime Minister and President on the 10th of March.
Here we are, the first visit by the king was going to be to France.
He was looking forward to it, he likes France, speaks French, been there 35 times in his life.
This was a very important moment.
For it not to work well, for it to descend into chaos or embarrassment would have been a mistake.
It is better to find another date when this thing can go according to plan.
Christiane: In the end, and I'm saying this for a reason, he will make his first state visit abroad to Germany.
Christiane: He is 20 do that.
He was going to do that after France.
There is also big protests and other travel paralysis going on there.
As you see France and Germany jockeying for top position in Europe, what do you think that says?
Is that a mesh -- a message that Germany and the continent will take?
What does that take -- what does that say about German relationships in the U.K.?
Peter: I think the plan was to go to the two most important parliaments for Britain.
He wanted to go to France first.
France's next door.
Lots of close links.
The fact that we have had to postpone the visit to France does not convey a political signal that Germany is now top dog.
It is one of those things.
I think it is good the visit is going ahead.
It would have been absurd to.
Postponement -- absurd to postpone that.
He has been to Germany something like 40 times in his life already.
I think there is no political signal, but I'm sure the Germans will, in their own way, who are fond of the royal family, be delighted he is going there first.
Christiane: I bet they will.
To the meat and potatoes of what is happening on the streets.
In all of the time that you have visited it personally and been the ambassador there, how would you analyze what is happening?
I spoke to Sophie Pedder, you heard.
Beyond the age, Britain is 66 years here, 67 elsewhere.
62 is quite low.
Young to retire in France.
What is this obsession?
Peter: I will make a couple points briefly.
One is that I always sensed in the many late -- many years I lived in France that when there was a cake, and it was not quite clear that everyone was going to get equal shares, the general sense of the French was, some of us should work less so everyone else has a share of it.
Unemployment in France is twice what it is in Britain, for example.
The sense that people have to work longer means other people have to work less.
And this idea of solidarity is quite important to French people.
The French on the whole work to live.
They don't live to work.
This balance between work and life is an important part of French culture.
The second thing is, you noted earlier, in France, 14% of GDP goes on pensions and benefits for the people in retirement.
In Britain, it is 6%.
The pension arrangements are more generous.
Therefore, the pension is important, but not to get it when you are hoping means you will be worse off, and it means you -- or you have to work longer.
That is a problem.
The third thing is there is this wonderful tradition in France, direct action.
Sometimes it gets taken over by hard-line anarchist groups.
You can see evidence of that, and you saw it.
This is part of the way France is.
The three big elements of France are the presidency, judiciary, not really the national assembly like our House of Commons does, in the street.
The street is flexing its muscles.
The last thing I should add is in France, even after they have elected by direct universal suffrage there president, something they have done since 1962 the French almost always fall madly out of love with the person they elected.
A previous president went down 4% at one point.
The French have a wonderful disrespect and disregard and contempt for the people they elect after they have elected them.
I don't think president Macron Islamists -- is escaping from that phenomenon.
Christiane: Do you think that surprises in?
I wonder whether you see what is happening in Israel, you have worked -- let me ask you about that, as a diplomat, former ambassador to the U.S. How do you see the Israel -- it is over democracy, just not what is happening in France.
Peter: And the way in which people come out into the streets saying, this is not our democracy, this is not our Israel, it is a remarkable sign of a vibrant democracy and how mature the society is.
There are other countries in the region where worst things have been done to an independent judiciary and people are not out in the streets.
One thing it shows is Israel is the vibrant democracy in a difficult and dangerous region.
The second thing and was Prime Minister Netanyahu has been around for a long time, and he is not a majority politician anymore, and has been under indictment for a number of things.
It seems to me he is overstretched.
Christiane: He is losing his touch?
Peter: Or he may know what he is doing, but it means when he goes to see Rishi Sunak and sees President Biden, people are going to be less impressed.
Christiane: It is different than before.
Governments that support Israel were careful about what they said in public.
Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, has talked about concerns.
The head of the British foreign affairs committee has said we need to stop being a critical friend of Israel.
And in the U.S., they are saying the same thing.
The Democratic Party anyway.
That is a change.
What does it mean?
Peter: It potentially doesn't damage Israel's relations with its important allies.
We have been here before.
Bibi Netanyahu was campaigning actively against President Obama second term, supporting the Republican candidate against them, which is a big no-no.
We have had bumps in the road beforehand and we have had bumps in the behavior against occupied territories.
The relationship fundamentally will get over this.
But it is not a healthy moment, and it does not look good for Israeli does my Chrissy.
Does in the sense -- it does not in terms of the credibility.
Christiane: As you know, there are many in the Israeli peace camp who say Israel will never be a real democracy unless it gives equal rights to its brothers and sisters, the Palestinians.
Where do you think that is leading?
That is left out of the public debate in this current upheaval.
Peter: They always talk about the two states.
Either Israel was going to be democratic or not, in which case there would be no rights for the other people.
I think the Abraham Accords's have parked that for the time being and you have other countries in the region which are busy fixing their relationship with Israel, rather than fighting hard and standing up for Palestinian rights.
Palestinians for the moment, are not part of the debate.
Christiane: And there is significant fears about what might happen there, especially with present -- pressures of Ramadan, and pressures we have seen over the last few weeks.
It is great to have your perspective on the 360 nature of these problems.
Peter Westmacott, thank you very much.
These French pension demonstrations echo other uprisings against the Macron government.
Most recently during the COVID-19 crisis, where the government had mandated vaccine passes.
The COVID vaccine, made possible by breakthrough mRNA technology, it's just the first example of an ongoing scientific revolution.
The New Yorker writer, Michael Specter, is author of a new audiobook called "higher animals, vaccines, synthetic biology, in the future half-life."
It comes out tomorrow and he is speaking to Walter Isaacson about the opportunities and risks of the latest scientific breakthroughs.
Walter: Thank you.
Michael Specter, welcome to the show.
Michael: I'm pleased to be here, Walter.
Walter: The COVID vaccines we got expose us to the wonderful molecule of S under RNA.
In your new audiobook coming, up this week you explained that mRNA will be part of something larger, a great revolution in biotechnology.
First of all, explain what messenger RNA is, and what it does in ourselves.
Michael: Messenger RNA is basically the thing that fairies blueprints around the body.
It sends information around the body.
And it is able, with the vaccines that we have all come to know, it is able to build blueprints that tell our body how to form the antibodies that we need to protect ourselves against the virus.
But it can do a lot of other things with other viruses and other substances.
Walter: In other words, it basically says, build a protein.
In the case of the coronavirus, it says build that spike protein.
It gives us immunity.
As a vaccine, it kicks up our immune system.
Is that right?
It is radically different than anything we have had before, because we used to basically, and we still to some degree do, operate on the principle that you take a bit of whatever is ailing the people, you take that virus, a dead version, or in activated version, you shoot a little bit into your body, that activates your antibodies.
And that protects you.
That usually works.
It does not always work.
But this is quicker, it is easier, more specific, and we can alter it the same way we could alter words on the page.
It is just very easy to use.
Walter: When you say we get altered, it means we could create any other protein for any other virus?
What else can we use it for?
Michael: We are getting to the point, and a lot of this book is about the fact that synthetic biology is getting to the point where we are able to master some things that will allow us to think about making vaccines for terrible diseases.
It will also make it possible for people to do things we don't want them to do if we are not careful.
Because it is getting easier.
It's like, after World War II, a computer took up an entire room.
And now the computer on my watch is more powerful than the one that sent astronauts to the moon.
That is sort of what is happening in biology.
We are moving into a landscape of personal biology where people will be able to make, assemble, print, and produce cells and organisms and alter them.
And that is both really exciting, and also kind of scary.
Walter: You call the audiobook coming out this week "higher animals.
What do you mean by that?
Michael: What I mean by that is us.
A lot of people think of higher animals, it means we will create some super organism.
He may be able to do that and not as long from now which you might think.
But I am referring to humans.
We are becoming higher animals in the sense that we are able to control biology in ways that we have never done in 4 billion years.
We are able to make things, alter things.
The idea that the COVID vaccine was basically assembled in a couple days once it was downloaded from the Internet.
By the way, those words ought to be profound.
We downloaded the blueprints from the Internet.
When you can do that, you can do a lot of things.
It means biology moves at the speed of light now.
Walter: One of the things I learned by listening to this audiobook was that it is much bigger than vaccines.
For one thing, we can use it to make chemicals.
We can grow chemicals instead of produce them.
We ought to be able to use it to work with environmental species, a species that are endangered.
I have one chapter in the book about the black footed ferret.
That is the most endangered species in North America, and it is endangered because it gets the plague.
The plague is something we have a vaccine for, but you cannot run around the entire west of the United States vaccinating every single black footed ferret.
What you can do is you can take that vaccine and embed it into the germ cells of an individual, who will then give birth to other black footed ferrets.
And those will be basically born with a heritable vaccine.
And people are working on that now.
Walter: And you make it sound like this is a revolution that was suddenly entering.
I think we are suddenly entering two revolutions.
One of artificial intelligence, especially with g chatbt.
And then molecules being the new microchips where we can reprogram our body to do think.
First of all, it seems strange to me that we are in a revolution, and we actually know it.
I don't think anyone woke up one day in 1760 and said, oh my God, the Industrial Revolution has just begun.
In the past two or three months, I've thought, my God, we are hitting two revolution.
Michael: I completely agree with you on both counts.
The reason we see these revolutions, whereas in the past, they have only been evident when we look backwards, is because when things move at exponential speed, it is difficult not to notice them.
The things that are happening in biology are moving so fast, the things happening with AI and biology combined are moving so fast, that it is really difficult not to notice them.
And notice their impact.
Walter: One of the characters in your book, Kevin, who I know you have written about when you are writing for the New Yorker, and now I think you are teaching with it at M.I.T., talks about the ethical implications we are going to face.
I know you teach a course on that.
Tell me about those.
Michael: The question is what do we want to do with this power we have to be able to alter the basic elemental structure of genes, of humans and other animals?
To be careful about how we use this power.
I don't know of a technology in human history that we discovered and then said, we are not going to use it.
I would like to be told of one, but I have not heard of one.
I have to assume that we are going to edit genes and genes that people can inherit, and we will edit genes of species and other things.
And we need to be really thoughtful and maybe for the first time say, should we be doing this particular thing?
Sure, it would be great to get rid of diabetes.
But are we going to edit someone so they can be an inch and a half taller in the next generation?
We have to have those conversations.
And they are not conversations that we are used to having or have ever really had.
Walter: You talk about the gene editing revolution, and that uses something you have written about extensively, which is crisper.
A way to easily edit our genes.
Which also has RNA at its core.
It has a guide RNA that edits DNA.
In the messenger RNA helps us build protein.
Tell me how those things are related.
Michael: I think of CRISPR as a prominent tool in the toolbox.
There are other tools coming along.
There is something called base editing, which you are aware of.
That are kind of refined versions of the ability to change DNA around.
But when you take the ability that CRISPR gives you to change DNA, and you pair it with something like eight gene drive, which allows a genetic predisposition to be forced through generations, you can basically change the gene pool in whatever way you want.
Walter: You did that about mosquitoes, right?
Explain a concrete example of that.
Michael: Malaria kills millions of people, it is one of the worst things on earth.
If we could figure out a way to get rid of enough of these mosquitoes, just those mosquitoes that are here to carry malaria, that would be a big deal.
Researchers have figured out a way.
They have taken genes and they have changed the genetic structure of those insects so that when they lay their eggs, the eggs die.
They don't continue living.
What you eventually have is a gene pool that disappears.
This has not happened in real life yet, because as with all of these technological advances, it is really going to be up to the people to decide whether they want to deploy this.
There are a lot of questions.
There is a long history of humans introducing species, changing species, and doing bad things.
And who would decide?
The African people, the people this affects.
Cannot fly down to Mali and release 300 million genetically altered mosquitoes and say, hey guys, congratulate us.
This has to be something they want to do.
And also, mosquitoes might -- that might be something people in Mali want to do.
But mosquitoes don't stop at the border.
They don't say, Molly said OK, but Central African Republic does not think so.
It is going to have to be something that is broadly accepted by the population.
I can tell you, that is a hard thing to get people to agree to.
Walter: What about broad acceptance of inheritable gene editing?
Michael: I do something we are going to have to face soon.
I have a feeling that if you went around to people and said, we have a way to get rid of diabetes, sickle-cell, things that really are devastating and cause endless harm to people, most people would say that would be great, let's get rid of that.
The question then becomes, are there other consequences of that?
What if we can edit a different gene to have a different result?
And maybe there are IQ points involved for height or abilities.
It becomes, I hate to use the phrase a slippery slope, but if it was ever apt, it is here.
It is going to be really difficult to decide when those powerful tools should be used on when they should not.
What we are went to have to decide.
Walter: We talked about two revolutions happening almost simultaneously.
You can look out the window and watch them happening.
One being the synthetic biology revolution, whatever you want to call it.
The other being artificial intelligence, and the chat bots that have come along.
How do those intersect?
Michael: Really powerfully, I will tell you why.
There is a problem called protein faulting carried proteins fall in weird ways that look like calls of yarn or spaghetti.
And they do this trillions of times a second.
And when you are trying to design a drug, you need to interact with the three-dimensional space those proteins represent.
And it has been almost impossible to figure out how proteins fold.
What you have had to do until recently is spend about a year and $80,000 using x-ray crystallography and take endless pictures from around a protein.
It is very cumbersome, expensive, and difficult.
The artificial intelligence company deep mind, which is owned by Google, decided they would try to solve this problem a couple years ago.
And people thought it was kind of crazy, until last year when they announced that they had solved the problem.
And people will quibble with the word solve, but deep mind has published 200 million proteins now, and people are using those proteins to try to make cancer drugs, other types of drugs, other solutions to diseases.
It is a radical AI/biology revolutionary step.
And I once said to a guy, how do you know when you set these programs and they solve them that they really solved them?
And he showed me two slides.
He said, we actually solved this protein but we did not sell them, we spent $80,000 in a year to solve it.
He put the slides up and they were debt -- they were identical to the atom.
This is an example of biology really being exciting when you compare it -- when you combine it with artificial intelligence.
I have to say, you don't have to have a crazy science-fiction imagination to see ways where this could go wrong.
Walter: Tell me how it could go wrong.
Michael: If you have the power to use AI to make very complicated biological solutions to problems, you have the power to use AI to make very complicated problems that don't easily get resolved.
Walter: You mean new bio weapons or new ways to design humans?
Michael: Mostly talking about bio weapons or altering the structure of viruses, so that they are impermeable to the vaccines that we have now.
Walter: It would be an offense and defense.
Somebody would create new vaccines, are we going to be able to find a way of fighting viruses that will make us be able to stop these new ones?
Michael: I think there are ways.
You mentioned Kevin as pop.
We should be testing the waste water every airport in this country and every major airport in the world, because if something is deadly, if it is man-made or even just natural, it is going to exponentially grow.
There are other solutions.
We can figure out ways to a little bit better, do a better job of regulating how we allow people to print to DNA, make DNA.
All of that is free.
If I want to go print the sequence of any virus you name, I can do it.
No one is going to stop me.
It is not illegal it is kind of immoral.
But it is not illegal.
In the academic world, it is encouraged.
Walter: One of the themes you have had with 30 years of your writing has been antiscience, signs to nihilism, and to some extent, I think, it connects into sort of a Lot I to his him about technology in general.
Do you think we have gotten into a worse situation with science denialism?
Michael: I'm sorry to say that I think we have.
I think part of that problem is people don't accept authority.
And there are lots of reasons.
Some legitimate, why they wouldn't.
There are lots of reasons, some legitimate, why they are unexcited by new technologies.
In the end, even with the COVID vaccines, there have been plenty of people who will not get them, and plenty of people who say crazy things.
But 14 billion of those vaccines have gone into human arms in the last three years.
Some people are perfectly willing to take something that was made synthetically in a lab and put it in their body to keep from dying.
Walter: Let me read you a cool sentence from your audiobook, and I want you to expound on it a bit.
You write "anyone who has listened to this book might have sensed some of my ambivalence about where synthetic biology could lead us.
Don't get me wrong, I'm excited and optimistic about our prospects.
But we are edging into a world which we are not wholly prepared."
Michael: Look, I don't think it is a secret that we are not very good at solving global problems.
Climate change has been going on for a while.
The problem here is that things move exponentially, they move early fast, and I don't know what a government body is going to sit down and say, here is how we regulate synthetic biology.
Here is how we combine artificial intelligence and synthetic biology so we do wonderful things for humanity, which we definitely will do, without doing terrible things for humanity.
Walter: Let me add another sentence you wrote because I want you to end on a more hopeful note which is "and yet, I'm going to bet on humanity and the future of biology."
Michael: Because I think we are a resourceful group, I think humans are resourceful and they want to prosper.
As I just said with the COVID vaccines, you can say a lot of bad things about the reaction.
But ultimately, it was magical we produced a vaccine for times faster than we ever have before, we saved millions of lives, and this was just the first swing at a whole new revolutionary technology.
And I think we will get better.
As we get better, people will appreciate what it can do for them.
That is why I'm optimistic.
Ultimately, I think people are not idiots.
I think they are worried.
We need to figure out a way to help them not worry as much.
Walter: Michael Specter, thank you for joining us.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me.
It's a pleasure.
Christiane: Finally tonight, we take a moment to recognize Walter's significant contribution to American history and literature.
In a ceremony at the White House, President Biden awarded Walter Isaacson the National humanities medal.
It is one of America's top honors.
Originally it was announced in 2021, but the pandemic delayed the ceremony.
His self described a storyteller, Walter has chronicled the lives of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo eventually.
-- Leonardo da Vinci.
's next subject is Elon Musk.
As Biden noted, understanding the significant people in history allows us to understand ourselves and our times too.
That is it for our program tonight.
If you want to find out what is coming up on the show every night, sign up for our newsletter at PBS.org/amanpour.
Thank you for watching "Amanpour and Company."
And we will see you again tomorrow.