Lee Cronin (@leecronin)’s lab at the University of Glasgow does cutting-edge research into manufacturing and 3D printing complex molecules, like medicines on-demand – a breakthrough he presented at TEDGlobal 2012.
He has one of the largest multidisciplinary chemistry-based research teams in the world, having raised over $35 M in grants and current income of $15 M. Lee has given over 300 international talks and has authored over 350 peer reviewed papers with recent work published in Nature, Science, and PNAS. He and his team are trying to make artificial life forms, find alien life, explore the digitization of chemistry, understand how information can be encoded into chemicals and construct chemical computers.
In our wide-ranging conversation, we cover many things, including:
- How Lee believes we can create artificial life
- The relationship between biology, chemistry and our understanding of the universe
- What Lee’s team is looking at when it comes to 3D printing medicines and molecules
- The future of personalized genetic medicine
- Why Lee is skeptical of artificial general intelligence
- The real problem with fake news
- How the scientific research funding process works and the politics involved
- Why researchers need to be able to sell their ideas
- The way Lee looks at problems to tackle
- Why chemical computers may be a bigger deal than quantum
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Professor Cronin: Some of the smallest people appear to come from the most difficult backgrounds and so I always kind of try and spread my bets on people every student comes to my lab or any person. I always give them what I think would be a Nobel prize winning project and I think it’s quite funny cause I’ve never won a Nobel prize and he never liked me too, but it doesn’t stop me giving them one. And then when they failed to win the Nobel Prize or the Nobel project doesn’t work, we’re kind of surprised and I mean they make it easier and then in the end that we make it, when it still continues to fail, we go, well what can we do? And that’s when suddenly I realise this. And some of my group members realize that we are really doing science, because suddenly we work out what we can do is interesting and I know if you haven’t done, and you start climbing the mountain you’re already half way up. Cause you’ve started and you failed to kind of, some height where people wouldn’t dare to go to start with. So I love being ambitious and I don’t mind failing I love to fail particularly well.
Matt: I like it and if you set a huge goal is then you’ve still gotten pretty insignificant progress.
Professor Cronin: Exactly and that’s why I think humanity will be fine. I mean that’s all I have four big problems because someone said, why you don’t just pick one I said well four chances of winning a Nobel Prize is better than one.
Matt: We’re living in the era of exponential technologies and today’s guest is at the forefront of several of these fields today. We have professor Lee Cronin on the program. Lee’s lab at the University of Glasgow is doing cutting edge research into the manufacturing and three D printing of complex molecules like medicines on demand. Lee is one of the largest teams in the world when it comes to research. He has done over three hundred international talks, authored three hundred fifty, peer reviewed papers, appeared numerous times at Ted and Teed, and is really doing quite a bit in terms of trying to push the push the future forward.
In today’s episode, we discuss how he believes he can create artificial life, the relationship between biology, chemistry, and our understanding of the universe. What Lee’s team is looking at when it comes to three D printing, the future of personalized genetic medicine? The real problem with fake news, the difference between quantum and chemical computers and much, much more. Without further ado, I give you professor Lee Cronin.
Professor Cronin: Hey guys,
Matt: Quickly, I would like to apologize for Lee’s audio here. We did the best we could to clean it up, but that’s the best we could do that. It does a little get a little bit echoed at times, but at the same point it is an interesting interview. We dive into some really deep topics and it’s really, really valuable. So we decided to leave those actions in. Now I give you again Lee Cronin,
The all  fact when my father gave me a personal computer, I was eight nine years old and it was called an XLA computer and I was fascinated with computing and also chemistry, and I got a chemistry set at the same time and I always wanted to program, chemistry with my computer and I was frustrated that I couldn’t connect my chemistry set to, my computer and really most of my entire life has been kind of aspiration ally trying to do that and then also to ask how not just complexity not only in the universe, but how does information arise.
Matt: Why do you differentiate between information and complexity?
Professor Cronin: It goes back to conversation I had about email or Freeman dyson, which I’m quite proud of and also bit embarrassed about because complexity doesn’t mean anything to anyone. It does mean something to some subset researchers, but even those researchers argue how I tell you I have some information you know immediately what I mean.
Matt: I see and then Information building upon itself It’s more information It’s not necessarily complexity?
Professor Cronin: Yes, exactly. A universe without life is a universe of information,
Matt: but it could still have complexity.
Professor Cronin: Yes, but we wouldn’t be there to measure it so it wouldn’t have inflammation because inflammation requires the process of encoding and decoding.
Matt: Interesting. So if a tree falls in the forest, does it actually make sound? How did you. How did you get into this? So for your research or looking into the origins of life and apparently creating artificial life, dive, dive a little bit into what your lab is doing. I know you want to run one of the top labs in the world
Professor Cronin: I don’t know if it’s the top one in the world but how you’re metric to define it, but it’s a pretty exciting place to be. And a privilege to have such interesting bunch of people, but I think that’s what they managed to create in Glasgow is to get people not just from chemistry and chemical engineering, but also from physics computing, science, electronics, electric engineer and biology and even cognitive chemical space.
Matt: And wacky things is a big part of what we’re doing. On fringe FM we’re looking to the future, the future that’s coming. I think a lot of the research you’re doing would be exactly that. Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the interesting projects you guys are working on?
Professor Cronin: Yeah, so I’ll probably summarize my top four projects and so one of them were just mentioned. We want to understand if we can make an artificial life form because my understand the origin of life. The second thing is I wanted digitize chemistry so I can turn code into molecules on demand and molecules into code ,so I could beam you a drug rather than send it to you by FedEx. I want to make a chemical brain that is a chemical computer and lastly, but not least, I want to understand how chemistry can encode information and you use that information within the chemical system and that mount safe may sound esoteric, but if I asked you if molecules think you might wonder if that’s the case and then you realize that your brain is made of molecules and indeed molecules do think.
Matt: And then we kind of get into a Buddhist type world of the caterpillar thinking in my bed thinking and having very, very complex conversations.
Professor Cronin: Not, quiet I’m happy to stop at simple abstraction. I don’t know where are molecules are conscious. I’m certainly we appear to be conscious, but I’m really interested in what is it about molecules that interact with one another that allows them to take part in an informational transfer process and a computational process that we can see in our brains.
Matt: Would this be, would this be along the line of what you’ve been looking into for inorganic evolution and how inorganic molecules start to change and improve themselves or trying to survive?
Professor Cronin: So basically the ultimate, the ultimate outcome of in organic evolution biology in the origin of life as we know as those organisms become more and more complicated and you get the first cellular, organisms, and then to organisms that have sensors and specialized sensors to process that sensory information. A series of different features seem to emerge higher and higher levels, and ultimately the ultimate abstraction I guess is the human being that can imagine the abstraction.
Matt: Is that the. Is that the driving force for your understanding how that happens? What’s your big overarching question that led you to this world?
Professor Cronin: Oh, but I think the one that bugs me the most is why does the universe do this?
Matt: A quick aside here, it’s quite interesting. Science and religion, the history of humanity. It’s all about answering that question of why? Why is life is here?
Professor Cronin: We don’t really understand the direction of the universe the big bang going forward or physicists don’t. Chemists do, chemists don’t realize they do. Yet, and I have a hell of a time trying to explain it to physicists. And so kind of understanding the directionality of the information processing systems have developed or evolved, might tell us something about the likelihood of having of other information of processing systems i.e. other life forms or even if we’ve really extraordinarily lucky alien conscious aliens, if you like, and then what the ultimate future might actually hold for humanity.
Matt: Interesting. Why do you say if we’re extremely lucky for intelligent life forms? My understanding was it should be a pretty set a hundred percent certainty just with the size of the universe?
Professor Cronin: I would agree with you, but we don’t have any data and I think human beings have a great ability to extrapolate. I live in the UK and we have a football team in England. Every time the football cup comes along so they English think that England will definitely win the cup and of course they haven’t for many, many years, so although I share your enthusiasm, I just simply lack the data.
Matt: But wouldn’t it be? Let’s say that we played the World Cup a hundred million times a million times, a million times a million times a million England’s eventually going to win regardless of how much they suck.
Professor Cronin: Yeah but that’s a middle posed question because there’s not the resource to play all those cups. That’s the problem I have with physics and maths is possible for you to think of an extremely large number, but like if I took my iPhone and ground it up into sand, and I said to you what’s the probability it could reform. If you’re a physicist you would say.
Matt: Essentially zero, but yeah, you, you, can reform it.
Professor Cronin: Yeah you know you win, right? Because most people say it’s very small. I would say it’s basically zero and I think the same thing goes for the World Cup.
Matt: Isn’t that a bit of what you’re looking into now though?
Professor Cronin: Yeah absolutely we’re trying to find out what is the missing physics or chemistry and the physics. I don’t know which way round to put it. We have a mathematics and universe that allows this to happen and I think the only way we’re going to do that is actually making it happen in the laboratory. I have a very simple view on informational, able to process information and that is just to do laboratory experiments. Where we start with simple stuff and we watched the ability for that matter that stuff, self-aware is the wrong term, over four billion year timescale. Perhaps the able to start to compete with itself or other objects. Differentiate and then start to evolve.
Matt: And that’s your thesis that’s what you’re trying to prove. How are you able to prove that?
Professor Cronin: The ultimate idea would be to make a machine whereby we put in sand and the sand turns into cells and although we’ve got a machines so people say, well, you’re going to machine so you create the machine. So it didn’t really happen. We wouldn’t be able to audit or essentially record how little information we needed to put in and how much spontaneous information would need to arise from the system. That would be a way of then showing how that might have occurred on earth and the key thing is to do a real experiment that puts the boundary conditions on the timescales.
Matt: Why is that?
Professor Cronin: Well, because if we don’t. If I make like say if I become, do what Craig Venter’s doing and I take a copy of some DNA from somewhere and a copy of a cell and I make artificial DNA and I make an artificial cell and I managed to make a life form, I won’t have actually managed to discover a life or I would just simply facsimiled existing biology, so what it needs to be able to do is kind of imagine I’ve got a dead planet and create the conditions or understand how the conditions could be created for life to naturally occur. Without any machine mechanistic intervention that isn’t coming from the basic laws of physics and chemistry.
Matt: Isn’t one of the popular theories of how we got life on collision with an asteroid that had previous life on it?
Professor Cronin: Sure I think probably the chemistry to biology on earth was cooked up on mars so the search place was larger but actually I think if we keep provoking that argument, we’re just kicking the can down the road ultimately falling into some kind of trap. Whereby we create them. I’m not saying invoking creators of trap necessarily. It doesn’t ultimately lend itself to a scientific thesis.
Matt: Understood you want to find out when that time zero is and see how things are?
Professor Cronin: Yeah.
Matt: Hey, matt here. Just in case we lost anyone when we were talking about time zero, we mean the big bang when the universe began. Essentially everything that happened after that, scientists are able to at least understand and observe or speculate about, but before that we really have no idea what happened, so Lee’s looking at how far back we can get and how much of the universe can we truly understand. I want to segue a little bit now into some of your work that you were looking into. Essentially digitizing chemistry and the ability to three D print medicine. Talk to me a little bit more about what the state of the art is here and where you see us moving in the future. A personalized medicine.
Professor Cronin: As a chemist, I make molecules, molecules. I’m mixing liquid chemicals in a lab all day you can do by you know mixing liquids in a test tube in round bottled flasks and we might right a recipe down, and validate the recipe and by the chemicals and do the reactions by hand, we might even need a little bit of machinery to help us frustrated try he variability reproducibility in success of the outcome of the experiment, the amount of material I’d gotten and just the sheer amount of labour. We make the highly trained, dedicated PHD chemist at the famous do. I wondered if we could somehow and make their life a little bit easier and capture there. Know how actually hot, to be honest with you, I was embedding this automatic machinery to make a life form. And when I realized that this machinery could make a life for was working. I realized the ultimate or initial application would be to use it in organic chemistry to start making molecules which are, you know, making drug like molecules or even drugs themselves. Now we’re not literally three D printing the molecules, but we’re doing something very similar in a three D printer.
You would load in a coordinate file and it would basically be able to draw the object with the plastic ink as it were in holding analogy in your head. As you can imagine that the nozzle off the three D printer was not now just extruding plastic out chemicals into a test tube. We’ve have full digital control of the process. Did we add A to B or B two A, was it shaken or stirred. How long was it heated for? How long was it cold for? All these magic tricks are suddenly recorded forever and we can then reproduce them and that then means we can then drop the cost of manufacturer and also personalize.
Matt: To do that though, we would have to have distribution, distributed peer to peer type production facilities for medicine worldwide.
Professor Cronin: Yes, now to do that at the moment cause that’s a stretch and I’m not sure that we want people doing that
Matt: Lee brings up a great point here in terms of both looking at the future, the potential challenges and also the steps to get there, so distributed medicine, perhaps that’s not where we’re headed quite yet, but we will get there. The challenge is of course, being when you can print drugs on demand, you have some inherent challenges with the war on drugs and quite a few other challenges related to governments, human enhancement and the potential for things to go awry.
Professor Cronin: Wouldn’t it be great if chemists could collaborate around the world and let’s just say I made a molecule in my lab today and I wanted to beam that molecule to another lab to check it was the drug I’d hoped it to be, rather than the other lab having to take many months to reproduce by synthesis and it could take that cause of the ambiguity that could reproduce it immediately. That would even transform the drug on that time scale.
Matt: What about patents and intellectual property?
Professor Cronin: Well, it transforms it because if I make a new molecule in my lab, I can digitally sign it, so suddenly I’ve got proof of discovery. I put the code into a repository or could even make a block chain, so make it kind of public, so how people modify it. We can do all sorts of things. We’re using digital rights management.
Matt: I’m personally fascinated with block chain, that’s why we’re having Kyle from capital in the program to discuss the implications of block chain and decentralization and how it affects governance and compute and much, much more.
Professor Cronin: So It would change the way patents are prosecuted but. I don’t think it would enhance collaboration because I’d be able to chemify my secrets, so just like a music artist. I’ll be hoping to put my music on Spotify and every time someone download it I would get some payments, what about if I May, if I chemify and I make an iTunes or Spotify for chemistry so that when people realize that my molecule was the best one for particular job rather than competing downloaded that one and I got paid for that.
Matt: It’s a very interesting future. I know you’re working a lot with trying to speed the process as well for chemical, a chemical discovery in medicine discovery, because right now it cost something like a. A billion dollars is either a billion or hundred billion dollars to bring a drug to market.
Professor Cronin: It’s a billion or eight hundred million but only a small amount of that money, small amount two hundred million dollars’ worth is spent on the chemical part a lot of it is spent on regulation, manufacture and probably the most important clinical efficacy and safety.
Matt: Are you looking at any potential ways to expedite those processes as well? I know you have a mad scientist type of brain.
Professor Cronin: I do like to think out of the box I do agree I’m not sure that I know how that necessarily, but I think by making the ability to make molecules more democratic, what I think we’ll be able to do is give other people better qualified than me who work in pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, molecular biology, the way of really inspecting what’s going on in sales in real time. Imagine say you know, let’s not imagine you, but someone you knew got cancer, bad news and then some of. The good news is you can take those cells from them, grow them if you like, in a petri dish or in a three D printed tissue, and then in real time test, different molecule we should just made in your robot against those cells or some kind of optical output and then feedback and then you could personalize the approach. To killing that particular type of pants. I think this is where perhaps this approach will be useful individually everyone’s cancers or an individual. That’s why it’s such a complicated disease and maybe this approach could help that.
Matt: Interesting. So as opposed to as opposed to the Hollywood movies where we’re cloning ourselves and then stealing our own organs were just cloning part of our DNA so that we are able to have enough material to test on for different. For different processes?
Professor Cronin: Yeah and I think that part of the future is probably closer to cloning.
Matt: What timeframe how long do you think?
Professor Cronin: Everyone else, and I always get into trouble? Because I think about the practical time and then there’s an impractical time regards to cultural inertia which I never understood when I was younger. We can do It now, I guess or in two or three years, if we had enough money, I think it will probably take a much longer, maybe a generation or more simply to get the regulators on side and also we need to demonstrate the efficacy of the entire process, but I’m hopeful that once we start to chemistry, chemistry and my computers and we democratized the way of inventing molecules will go up so dramatically. The number of drug candidates will also go up dramatically and there’ll be a Moore’s law of molecules and drugs
Matt: And the convergence with genetic testing to be able to sequence human genomes and look for look for specific traits etcetera.
Professor Cronin: One day you’ll be wearing a device that might even be able to sequence you on the fly day to day and say, oh my gosh, you’ve got crude these mutations over the past week
Matt: As you could do that because you wouldn’t need that much data. You would only be looking at the changes, the differentiation?
Professor Cronin: Who knows I mean reckon no. In the future, if you could just sequence everything, wouldn’t you?
Matt: Probably so you kind of have a pretty incredible job. You look for interesting problems to solve here. We’ll jump into Lee’s childhood a bit where he had a bit of a tough time growing up, especially when it relates to school. I wanted to point this out because even though he’s accomplished so much, he did have to overcome great challenges. I think that’s important for us never to forget and never to idealize. I was looking into your background in the past and I saw that you had some trouble in school and that this kind of lead you down a positive route, so I wanted to hear a little bit more about that
Professor Cronin: I mean people say I had trouble I was in the learnings difficulty group at school and I don’t know what they mean probably looking back now but it was the fact that probably enabled me to approach science the way I approach it and indeed, had I been at the top class at school I probably been too worried about failing all the time. However, when you do nothing come last and no one has the expectation of you, so when they want to have an expectation of me, I was able to carry on and just do what I wanted and what I was interested in and that you know I think I invented my smartness or my abilities or whatever, by climbing an additional mountain as it were. Well, I kind of own the problems a little bit more. My curiosity is genuine. I’m not worried about what people think of me. Most people, I guess who meet me think I’m quiet stupid.
Matt: About that why do you think lee’s been so successful my money’s on the fact that he didn’t have to follow a societal norms who’s able to shape his own path, so to speak and follow, follow his passions. I think this is incredibly important and society and school system do not do a good job of. That’s my question for you. What are you passionate about? What should you be pursuing that you’re not?
Professor Cronin: Well I don’t know, in an academia I don’t mind asking silly questions
Matt: but that’s because you’re smarter than other academics and willing to look dumb because you know, it makes you smarter?
Professor Cronin: No I genuinely think that I’m happy being me growing up was generally hard, or growing up would have been hard. Had I realised how screwed up it was but actually I just solve problems. so I remember when I was at primary school I realized there was no way of proceeding to high when I went to the high school in the UK when your eleven years old and they just said, you know, when you get to high school, you’re going to be learning different groups group there, there’s no chance to progress. And I was like, what do I need to do? This is when I’m faced with a problem, I just break it down into problems to solve that problem. Line up the problems in difficulty and solve them one after the other and then there’s no problem anymore.
Matt: And then you have one of the largest multidisciplinary chemistry research labs in the world. How is, how is your challenge has impacted how you look at education and the future for humanity?
Professor Cronin: I don’t know if I can answer either of those questions one of the things I was unexpected about being a professor was obviously you want to have all the smartest people in the world come work for you. And I realised actually some of the smartest and I should’ve known better some of the smartest people appear to come from the most difficult backgrounds. And so I always kind of try and spread my bets on people when they come to my lab. So I like to have a mixture of people who have top of their class and people who didn’t do so well but basically show a genuine spark. And so my approach to education and to belief in humanity is not to consign anybody. Find that by their current limits, by confined them. So often I, every student who comes to my lab or any person I always give them, well I think it would be a Nobel prize winning project. And I think it’s quite funny because I’ve never won a Nobel Prize and never liked me too, but it doesn’t stop me giving them one.
And then when they fail to win the Nobel prize or the project doesn’t work, we’re kind of surprised and then make it easier. And then in the end when we make it. When it still continues to fail, we go, well what can we do? And that’s when suddenly you read this. I’m realizing some of my group members realize that suddenly realised we are really doing science because we work out what we can do is interesting and you start climbing the mountain again. You already half way up cause you’re already in orbit and started in some height where people wouldn’t dare to go to start with. So I love being ambitious and I don’t mind failing, and I love to fail particularly well
Matt: I like it and if you got huge goals and you want to set it would be pretty significant progress.
Professor Cronin: Exactly and that’s why I think humanity will be fine. I mean that’s why I have four big problems cause someone said, why don’t you just pick one well I said four chances of winning a Nobel prize is better than one.
Matt: I like it Is that the goal of Nobel prize?
Professor Cronin: No but clearly something that my peers like and I feel that is interesting to the world, but probably more, more often. My. I guess I’m being brutally honest, my ambition is to discover something that was completely unexpected and to find something genuinely new throughout universe because of the activities that we have taken because of attempt to peel the onion with a new idea. I think that’s my mission in a way. We’d really love to do that more than anything else and if it wins prizes or whatnot, then great. I’ve genuinely peeled the onion and found a new reality or contributed to a new reality, I think that’s probably enough.
Matt: I think that would be pretty solid success. I like that you focus on peel the onion you use the onion on the problem that you want. Do you think that that is a big part of the reason you’ve been successful and how do you think about that in terms of how other people choose careers, futures, education paths, et Cetera?
Professor Cronin: I think it’s really important, I mean I do believe there’s just one onion right, there’s one onion of the universe but I do think isn’t it interesting that having ideas. Original ideas gets to the truth and different ideas and I think that that’s why I try and encourage people to think about is not to just copy what other people are doing. I read the literature, I find it hard to read the literature. I don’t really care what’s in the literature that much to be honest. I care what’s not in the literature, what can me do that’s new and not just new predictable but unpredictable discovering stuff that doesn’t mean that people who improve stuff or people that do choose a particular endeavour, they can see that is any less worthy. It’s just, it doesn’t excite me as much and I’m not able to sell it as much to get phones to captivate other people’s minds and I think my genuine enthusiasm for finding interesting problems has helped me build the team I’ve built,
Matt: So that’s how you think of selling it. So you guys have the thirty five, million in grants and fifteen million million a year in income coming through patents, et cetera. Is that right?
Professor Cronin: No so I think which way around is it? It’s. I think I’ve raised so far in my career thirty five million in total and the current income and the group is about fifteen but I’d love to raise it through patents. That would be awesome.
Matt: So I thought that was recurring revenue coming in and that would be very good.
Professor Cronin: No, no I think if we managed to do that I’d probably be boring really quickly.
Matt: Talk to me about University based and research based science works. A lot of people aren’t in the field and don’t understand the system, so can you break it down quickly?
Professor Cronin: Sure so you normally start off as an associate professor, you have a small amount of money and the job really is to turn that small amount of money into some really extraordinary results that people then start to trust you and therefore you can get good people and equipment and then start t be more exuberant and your ideas and then you write grants to field a team and you would apply to multiple organizations outside the university, say to medical charities or to engineering organizations that have money to give grants to universities on the tax payer or by industry or by philanthropists and you’re competing with your fellow scientists and what will happen is your write proposal. My latest, great idea. Someone proposal I’m writing right now is on the brain is called the chemical brain and explain why it’s an important proposal. I want to make a chemical brain. I don’t want to understand how human brain works. That’s being done. Why don’t I make chemical one and then you know, explain how I might do it, what the hypothesis is, and I write the best proposal. I can based upon my expertise, send it to these organizations which are a lot in the US, less in UK. They will then be peer reviewed, by my peers. So the other people were competing for money, so it’s kind of like a hardest environment you can imagine and they will, they will it anonymously tell the organization whether they think you should get money or not. That is then wrapped and then you get a decision. And a cheque or a rejection.
Matt: Sounds even more brutal than venture capital. Talk to me about this, this chemical brain that you’re trying to create what it looks like, how you plan to do it, how it looks like?
Professor Cronin: I’ll tell you enough cause people keep secrets boring so I want to do is I’m interested in polymers are really important in chemistry. Right their Important for making clothes paints soft materials, polymers are like wiggly things they remind me of neurons in your brain and I was like if I could take these polymers respond to electricity or light. Could I use these polymers sort of wiggly things to process information and so that’s what I’m going to try and do. I’m basically going to try and take Jell-O and turn it into a brain
Matt: And if you get consciousness. How will you react?
Professor Cronin: I don’t think we’ll get consciousness, but I think we will get a more flexibly intelligent entity that will be able to compute faster. Now the problem with computers right now, digital computers is they really energy intensive. If I could make a chemical brain, a bit like your brain, your brain probably uses about I might get this all wrong but it’s between twenty and forty watts and you have a huge amount of computing power in your brain, whereas you know the average desktop computer can use hundred fifty, two hundred, two fifty was just running windows, so that’s obviously unsustainable. So I’d like to think about, try and redefine how we might do computing and make it lower energy, solve problems in a slightly different way, and also get round some of the bottlenecks. We have computing paradigm,
Matt: There’s a lot of hype about quantum computing or are you familiar? Unfortunately Lee doesn’t go into detail on how quantum computer actually works. And that said it’s actually quite complicated and that’s part of the reason for it. I want to do a quick breakdown here. So essentially the difference between quantum computing and the way your computer at home works. Quantum computing is all based off of the probabilities. It’s probabilistic computing that uses relativity to estimate or guess the best possible scenario or the most likely situation that’s a bit different than how traditional computers work in terms of ones and Zeros,
Professor Cronin: Yeah I mean I must admit, I thought that quantum computing was over hype I do think it’s exciting and I do think there are practical limitations but I do think that quantum computing will actually make a difference. But it does have specific problems that it’s going to be good for, and there’s a specific kind of resource constraint to keep to explore that space and also programming quantum computers and understanding the content is still quite hard, so I think the chemical computer I’m trying to make could be as exciting if not more exciting as a quantum computer, but easier maintain in its computing space because it’s guy chemicals.
Matt: What are your thoughts on a hybrid I feel like with a human brain? We have a lot of different moving parts, so to speak. You have left brain and right brain, which isn’t a very good synopsis, but there’s different ways that the brain processes different information for artificial intelligence researchers that are trying to build neural nets. Unless you build something that’s flexible enough and productive enough, it seems nearly impossible to create intelligent life.
Professor Cronin: I think you’re absolutely right, and I wish to tell you [33:16].
Matt: Well I. I also can understand his fears because it’s kind of like that thing where you have a child and you never know when they’re going to start crawling and you leave stuff out and suddenly they start crawling.
Professor Cronin: No, Mask I’m afraid in this he might be a wonderful engineer, but he’s quite wrong. Also, peddling incoherence doesn’t. It’s not really useful it’s like him saying I’m really worried anti gravity’s going to spring up and we’ll all fall of the earth.
Matt: I would say it’s much farther away than that. I think that’s a bit of a hyperbole, but that’s my opinion. Why do you think that
Professor Cronin: No I agree with anti-gravity doesn’t exist and we’re not going to fall off or there might be a scenario where you can imagine that we manipulate physics in some way we don’t understand and so exactly the same problem is general AI exactly the same. So in silicon right now. You will never ever, ever, ever make anything approaching the complexity of the human brain and that’s because the human brain has a trillion neurons with a thousand connections that means there are more possible states and the average human brain than there are atoms in the universe. Now that’s pretty mind blowing and so I think that what we’ve got to try and do is work out how we might get somewhere akin to human consciousness or intelligence by making hybrid silicon organic brains and then you need to start to worry
Matt: Are you looking into that as one your next proposals
Professor Cronin: Yeah.
Matt: How do you go through the process of deciding what to focus on? We’ve talked a little bit about what you’ve done and kind of how you jump into things.
Professor Cronin: brutally if its basil laws of science and it really annoys people I’d keep going.
Matt: And the same is true. How do you decide with your graduate students what their focuses are going to be? Do you have some hand in shaping that?
Professor Cronin: Yeah, I mean the students that come in like come into the mission and the group right so we are wanting to digitize chemistry, make artificial life, look at information processing things in chemistry and kind of explore and diver things we want to make in science, and the direction we’re going in try and make that clear. I will pretty much do anything for most students sometimes if they like. If they try and do one particular project and they struggle or they get excited about one thing and they can convince me that I’m not going to go bankrupt them halfway always because that’s part of the fun. You just learned so much, but what I try and do is broadly defined the direction and then we just, we just run at it and we come up with lots of different ideas together and before you know it they own the problem and the solution much more than I do and so the PHD students, they hold a special place in the lab because we need to enable them to understand the process of science which means a little bit of getting lost in the kind of in no man’s land as it were and finding the interesting ideas and working out how to think critically and I have some postdoctoral researchers who are paid on specific projects. Where there are stakeholders expecting us to do specific things and so sometimes I have to kind of drag, drag us back to that reality.
Matt: Which is always the less fun but necessary reality I have I have the sneaking suspicion that much research and science is underfunded. I feel like there’s a lot more money going to easy money and a lot less money going into deep research today. Would you? Would you concur?
Professor Cronin: Yeah, I mean so I’ve also raise venture money actually the last few years as well for ideas, certainly there isn’t enough money necessarily. Bad thing. I think there’s a sweet spot and the problem is I think in the US is put to little money. However, if you’re successful at writing grants in the US, you’re just. You can build a super group immediately, but those civic groups is quite hard for the PI the principal investigator that that scientists running them to actually do any science. They have to sell it all the time. Running around on an airplane with a briefcase and the proposal and I think that’s going a bit too far, so I think you want to have this kind of happy medium between and enough money to maybe underpin but not so much money that you’re not constantly being pushed to be creative, if that makes any sense?
Matt: That makes sense. What about commercializing tech?
Professor Cronin: Oh, I’d love to do that and not because I want to take commercial money, but I want people to be interested in what I’ve done. And you know it’s okay, you know, discovering life forms and making brains or whatever it is you’re doing, but if no one in the outside of your laboratory cares, then why are you doing it?
Matt: And this is the big problem with science?
Professor Cronin: No.
Matt: interesting? I would not have guessed that. This ties in beautifully to the entire theme of Fringe FM and the forever fund to that. I’m focused on building. If you go to forever funds dock, you can learn a little bit more.
Speaker 3: We chose to go to the moon and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Matt: The other thing JFK forgot to bring up is that the space race drove ninety nine percent of the technological innovation, growth and profit of the coming decades. It’s incredible the amount of technology that came out of that race between the US and Russia and how its benefit all of us?
Professor Cronin: Now of course people go nuclear bombs, nerve agents singular similarities blab and I can understand those worries and I think we are getting better at communicating how we are professional and trying to save God things sometimes to try and do the experiment and you know do it openly and maybe that stuff isn’t used for years, but you know what? If the taxpayer gives me money to be a little bit crazy and just do random things, that’s great. I love that and I’m very appreciative of that but and what’s crucial is if I use that money and during the process I stopped an opportunity to that or a technology that should get out there. I feel it’s my science or got to make sure that happens. They’re not necessarily by doing it and being an entrepreneur because I’m a pretty rubbish entrepreneur. But I might you know sell its patented, publish it, enable other people to copy it, go to trade shows and say, you should do this. I’ve discovered this widget. You should use it. It’s going to change the way you think about. I’m making a lot of money, so I think that scientists need to do that a little bit more. Curiosity driven science is brilliant. We should do it and you should pay me to do it, but you should also expect me as a consequence of that when I find things that could be important for humanity to make sure they get out of my laboratory.
Matt: Do you think too many scientists don’t?
Professor Cronin: No actually. I think more and more of us do it. I think some people over to it, oh my gosh, impact before science. So many young people nowadays, I tell you what the application of their sciences and I’m like, what’s the question? They’re like, what? I said, well, what interests you and I want to make a battery. I’m like that’s a bit boring I’ve got a battery. What about, you know, tell him if wormholes exists and they feel bad because I’m kind of making fun because it’s great. They want to make better batteries and it’s great. They want to make better drugs and I believe if the tax pat pays me the curiosity, I will pay the tax payer back with technology. That’s probably a good quote.
Matt: But are they paying you for curiosity. Are they paying you for results?
Professor Cronin: No, I think they need to pay me for curiosity and I think they need to trust my results when I’m young. You just give me a little bit of trust because I’m young and I deserve a chance and then when I get to a certain part in my career, hopefully I have a track record and then you then you know, you pay on the basis of that track record.
Matt: Were you super nerdy growing up?
Professor Cronin: Yeah I guess.
Matt: What were you not what were your hobbies?
Professor Cronin: I used to build computers now have household items. I think my mother’s washing machine didn’t survive very long. , the telephone the TV. I tried to build a CO two laser once.
Matt: How old were you when you were doing this?
Professor Cronin: Maybe ten. I mean it didn’t work, right? So I read it. Co two laser. I realized I need a CO2 to CEO. I wasn’t thinking straight so I got a cylinder and I set fire inside the cylinder hoping to trap CO2 special Class.
Matt: And that’s why you were in that social class they were real worried about you. T
Professor Cronin: Yeah I guess.
Matt: That’s very cool. So I’m actually very important question. How do we encourage more young kids and the next generation to look to science and to changing the future versus making a lot of money or being stuck in an iPhone?
Professor Cronin; I think we just have to activate peoples curiosity and also humanity is really interesting junction. I was worrying about this earlier tonight and I haven’t robot, but most my lawn mower my lawn myself and when I was too busy and when I was reading something about, you know, the average American CEO, he doesn’t expect to be giving any workers a pay rise above inflation and automation is coming. I was thinking of it and feeling a bit sad, right? For humanity and then I realized if we’re, if no one has a job making things then really can you give each other jobs be it art, science, books, fantasies, whatever it is we want to, you know, you know, film. And so I suddenly got excited that really perhaps enabling humanity to be more creative and value that creativity is probably a really important. And okay Even if you’re making iPhone apps, just make good ones, right? Holographic style R2D2 style. I think that’s really exciting that there might be a and nexus coming soon where actually if we can solve, there is a little hump we have to get over. We have to, we have to stop global warming or at least find a way to arrest it. We need to make sure everybody in the world from the very poorest to the very richest is educated. Particularly Women we need water all these problems are solvable and energy and they’re solvable when on lifetimes. Once we solve them, we need to do something else and we can be really bored.
Matt: Yeah really bore never leads to good places,
Professor Cronin: Yeah so I can’t help thinking that the creativity of the human mind I see is not exhausted. We are. We just keep going. So I’m really excited about just because I can’t imagine how we’re going to go over the current automation crisis. Maybe if I as a weaver, you know when, when the, when the loom was coming and the mills were coming, maybe I’m stuck in this kind of problem right now and the answer is coming.
Matt: The challenge with the analogy as they had like eighty years of wars and civil strife, I’m not sure if we’re going to have to go through something like that or if people are going to realize that we may have to start shifting to a different type system because once you have abundance, there’s no reason to work for nothing.
Professor Cronin: Yeah. I don’t think we need to go home and one of the reasons why we haven’t had a proper war we’ve had all these proxy wars. I mean, it’s a bit philosophical for me as a global system, although UK wants to Brexit and so on. We depend on each other so much. I mean, where did all this fish ram being created it’s being created in Taiwan and Korea, I mean, it’s really interesting how the global system is interconnected and interwoven and how we are depending on each other in different ways, not just in time thing. So I’m really optimistic that despite all the bravado and to make things better and will continue to get better
Matt: And that’s the goal with this podcast, to help make it better and to get people like you on who are building the future, transforming it and creating the more interesting world of tomorrow. What, what areas outside of your own work are you most interested or excited about?
Professor Cronin: I’m really interested to see the people that are choosing to do. I’m kind of looking at brain chemistry imaging. Whether we can actually see if I think called consciousness actually does exist because I have my doubts. I’m certainly self-aware, but I’m not sure if I’m conscious. I’m interested in that. I’m really interested to see what will happen in the current space race. The space technology where can actually stop talking to people on twitter and get on with the job or getting to Mars and yeah just genuinely fascinated by computer science is going and how we’re generating new realities within our existing physical realities. But to be honest, I’m, I’m so obsessed with my own little kind of questions here and then sometimes I forget about the rest of the world.
Matt: Completely understand. That means you’re doing the right thing. What resources, sites, blogs, podcasts, etc. Do you look to a daily, weekly basis to stay informed and Intune?
Professor Cronin: I use twitter started? Which I’m kind of starting to get annoyed with so I’m generally when I go traveling, I try to talk to the students and go spend maybe up to a third of my travelling time, going to student invited events, I try to kind of get lost when I’m in digital media and looking at publications and things and get you know side tracked and try and follow up questions. And often by trying to do is like trying to pick a problem I thought I solved or I thought someone else has solved and I’m doing this a lot in maths at the moment and I just kind of get lost in that I’m getting lost in common tutorial mathematical theory at the moment. Various reasons and, and that part from feeling inferior and stupid all over again. I just learn new stuff.
Matt: That brings up an interesting point and also a couple of things you mentioned earlier about chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Do you think there’s one underlying equation or system that ties together all of our natural forces that we’re not able to see it or understand at this point?
Professor Cronin: Probably but I don’t think it’s knowable but I think that underlying everything we have now, the process that we call now the big bang. And so I think there’s interesting asymmetry in which information is lost and so I think are we thinking about this the other day that perhaps there was a unifying, coherent symmetrical thing, but we never get to know what it is because we’re this part of time and we’re conscious and it’s fascinating that we might never be recreated because there are so many paths going back in time that we just don’t know. But certainly one of the reasons I’m fascinated by the origin of life and, and the fact that making a life on the labs would be easy and obvious, but yet no one has been able to do it. I’m wondering what is missing? What is the missing physics or the missing understanding? And the thing has to do with time and symmetry and also our understanding of how energy flows through time and space. So I think there’s lots of interesting problems there, but I think more than anything, rather than becoming grandiose and coming up with a unified theory, I need to do simple experiments that throughout results. That we just didn’t expect. And I’ve got a few of those right now and I’m trying to give my chemistry experiments in my lab history. What I mean is that the outcome of the experiment depends critically precisely on its history. And when I start to do that reliably, you know what? I’m on the path to biology.
Matt: Why does that matter about the history?
Professor Cronin: Well, because biology is just chemistry with history and once I can start to create chemistry with history, I create genomics and when I create genomics, I create biology,
Matt: Interesting and the we’re approaching [49:07] quantum products that we can manipulate and change is that, is that what you mean?
Professor Cronin: Not quite not quite what I’m interested in one days helping humanity, human beings on this spaceship, but by new instructions that we post to other planets into a new type of know inorganic life form and I know before you tell me that I’m advocating infecting the universe of humanity, but you know why not Britney spears and infected pop music,
Matt: It’s like the terrifying billionaire scenario. They create the DNA from themselves. They called themselves and shoot embryos out into the world, into the universe, and we have a billion Donald trump’s, but he has a billion dollars that’s another story. All around the universe.
Professor Cronin: Yeah it’s fascinating. Just think about how we might manipulate mass in the universe.
Matt: It is a, It is very fascinating. I know at the same time you’re incredibly busy. What’s one topic or one person you would like to see on the show and what would you like them to talk about?
Professor Cronin: Oh my gosh. There’s one person I’d like to see and what would they say on the show, but I think it might be interesting to probably get some kind of like a hybrid, person but maybe get my friend from Harvard, he’s moving to Toronto, Allen Brunswick who is a quantum chemist, making quantum computers and asked him if he could make a quantum brain, and That would be fun. Have you had George Cherish on the show yet?
Matt: I have not.
Professor Cronin: So George Church was a very famous, another Harvard person. He’s a very famous geneticist. He wants to clone Woolly [50:55].
Matt: Oh I want to get him on the show. If you know either of them, I would love introductions to get them on.
Professor Cronin: Yeah, Allen definitely would. Come on. I’m not sure if George is a bit aloof. he’s a lovely guy. He likes to discuss his science. Thinks deeply. He’s a remarkable individual.
Matt: Busy, busy changing the world. Okay. I got one last question for you. What’s one challenge question or ask you half of the audience?
Professor Cronin: I think the challenge I have for the audience think about what impact you could have as an individual to try and help us all to think a little bit more critically to tell the difference between fact and fiction and also to realize there are things, which are basically right and things which are basically wrong and, and just to help perpetuate that thing that we’re taught. Critical thinking is going through a bit of a processed by saying that you know facts are optional.
Matt: By that he means climate change guys.
Professor Cronin: No, I’m talking about everything. I’m talking about the bowling green massacre, you know, that didn’t exist. It was made up by, you know, kellyanne Conway on fox news. I’m talking about countering inconvenient facts with counter facts and so that everyone thinks that facts or some kind of democracy. Like in UK because we had at UK independence party to be balanced. We have to give them equal time with the, the people that thought that we probably shouldn’t be independent despite, in the EU you know, has a smaller population constituency. So although I know that facts are revised because we know sometimes facts do shift. I mean, Newtonian gravity is perfectly useful, but I think ultimately not the best, most accurate form of gravity, but it works and that basic fact is okay, and so I just really would like the audience to really understand and appreciate there are facts and they are not democratically decided.
Matt: I think a big part of the problem in addition to just the incentives here for lying is that when people hear scientists are in general terrible speakers and when people hear scientists speaking and saying we think or we haven’t proven wrong, basically there’s no such thing as a true fact when it comes to science. It just hasn’t been proven wrong yet. It’s a law, but it’s not something that has essentially science is just waiting to get itself wrong so you can kind of construe that to what you want it to be. If you’re dealing with people that don’t understand science or the basic, the basic nature of reality.
Professor Cronin: I think that it is that the way to you kind of when I wake up in the morning do I have faith the sun is going to rise or do I kind of have evidence it will okay let’s say I’m not in Scotland where it’s not cloudy, and I think there are some things where you can just say, okay, it’s facts. I remember as a child changing everything all the time go crazy. I don’t know how TV works or I don’t know how café’s work or I don’t know how an electrical works but somehow and you have to go at some point you have to accept something and whether you have to have a belief can be challenged, but they are so seldom challenge. They are essentially a movable.
Matt: Were your parents scientists?
Professor Cronin: No. My mother’s a nurse retired now. My father is a builder,
Matt: Lord you must’ve been a handful then
Professor Cronin: For many reasons because I was always taking things apart. I was always kind of very. I realized I’m quite a direct person and I have a particular way of socially interacting with people which kind of overcome now, so I think I was just annoying on all levels. I think
Matt: And at the same time those are the characteristics of people that changed the world and go on to do great things. I know, which I think you’ve done and Lee I know you’ve got a ton to do. Where’s the best place for people to find you online? Reach out and say, hey,
Professor Cronin: Email, twitter I think that’s probably the best way
Matt: And we’ll throw link. We’ll throw links to everything in the show notes. Guys, fringe dot fm. Just search for lee or lee Cronin Lee’s probably easy enough at this point okay Lee. Thanks for coming on today and thanks for tuning in guys.
Professor Cronin: Okay great.
If you want more of fringe FM, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or go to fringe dot FM where you’ll find tons of audio and video interviews with leaders in the fields of genetics, cryptocurrency on levity air space or, and much, much, and you can follow me on twitter at its Matt ward. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a quick review on iTunes to help more people discover fringe fm.
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