March 31, 2013
Do we humans “own” our own genes?
The more than 40,000 patents on DNA molecules have allowed companies to essentially claim the entire human genome for profit, report two researchers. Their study, published March 25 in the journal Genome Medicine, raises an alarm about the loss of individual “genomic liberty.”
The research team examined two types of patented DNA sequences: long and short fragments. They discovered that 41 percent of the human genome is covered by longer DNA patents, which often cover whole genes. They also found that, because many genes share similar sequences within their genetic structure, if all of the “short sequence” patents were allowed in aggregate, they could account for 100 percent of the genome.
Furthermore, the study’s lead author, Dr. Christopher E. Mason of Weill Cornell Medical College, and the study’s co-author, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey and a member of the High Performance and Research Computing Group, found that short sequences from patents also cover virtually the entire genome — even outside of genes.
“If these patents are enforced, our genomic liberty is lost,” says Dr. Mason, an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics and computational genomics in computational biomedicine at the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell. “Just as we enter the era of personalized medicine, we are ironically living in the most restrictive age of genomics. You have to ask, how is it possible that my doctor cannot look at my DNA without being concerned about patent infringement?”…
Indeed, the Supreme Court will next month consider a case in which a diagnostic company is being sued for testing whether specific genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2, two key breast and ovarian cancer genes) are present in a patient. This is somewhat different from the better-known tension between proprietary and generic drugs, where the argument is over how much of a premium the inventing company should be able to charge, and for how long, to recoup its risky investment. In this case, the test procedure isn’t the issue (it’s relatively simple– and public domain– chemistry); what’s at issue is what’s being tested: while the DNA being tested is, of course, the patient’s, the plaintif has patented the isolation of those specific types of gene– or more specifically, those types of gene, identified as those types of gene.
If it sounds weird, it’s because it is. Still, it has very practical– and painful– implications: any test for or donation of or research on those specific genes, the plaintif argues, they belong not to the patient, but to the company– whatever the source of the genes. The defendant, and other similar companies, offer their tests for hundreds of dollars; the plaintif charges thousands… a price it means to protect with its patents. To wit, one of the reasons that medical expenses in the U.S. continue to skyrocket.
There’s a chilling effect on research as well: these days researchers pursuing novel treatments often follow leads to genes that they find are patented… and abandon their research, as the barriers presented by the patent– both procedural and financial– are preemptory.
It get’s weirder still: one company, which patented a method of cow breeding, discovered that their patent covers a large percent of the human genome– Christmas in July! DNA can readily cross species boundaries– and thus, so do patents.
But messiest of all, there’s been such a rush to patent, and such a willingness on the part of the PTO to grant (and leave it to the courts to figure out), that the human genome is a thicket of overlapping, conflicting patents– a morass that could generate decades of litigation (and legal fees of hundreds of millions of dollars, before we even get to damages).
Just as running into a “patent block” can divert a researcher’s quest for a cure, so the prospect expensive litigation acts as a damper on innovation: smaller companies simply can’t afford the ante, so the onus of R&D and new product introduction in IP-heavy fields shifts increasingly to larger enterprises. Leaving aside that mega-c0mpanies are often slower and less creative than smaller, nimbler companies anyway, these larger companies now have to divert huge resources to fighting “patent wars” (as we’ve seen in the electronics sphere, while this starts with litigation, it quickly extends to amassing patent portfolios to use as weapons). So perhaps most damaging of all, the emergence of patents as disputed “toll gates” slows the pace of innovation– especially of the introduction of innovation into the marketplace– as the courts play a more and more central role. It’s one thing to wait a bit longer for a slightly-enhanced smartphone; it’s another to wait an extra year or two for a medical treatment that that might save thousands of lives.
And then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not we own the constituent parts of our own bodies, whether or not we own ourselves.
We can only hope that when the Supreme Court takes up the gene testing case (The Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. et al.) next month, they have the sense to follow Dr. Mason’s advice:
“I am extremely pro-patent, but I simply believe that people should not be able to patent a product of nature,” Dr. Mason says. “Moreover, I believe that individuals have an innate right to their own genome, or to allow their doctor to look at that genome, just like the lungs or kidneys. Failure to resolve these ambiguities perpetuates a direct threat to genomic liberty, or the right to one’s own DNA.”
Read the full story here.
[Cartoon by Chris Madden and published by Biopoliticaltimes.com; via Dark Daily]
March 20, 2013
On the heel of Pew’s new report on the “State of the Media 2013,” there’s been a good bit of hand-wringing over the future of journalism in general, and of newspapers in particular. And not without reason: in 2012 newspapers lost $13 dollars in print ads for every $1 dollar they’ve gained online (ads and subscriptions combined). And that’s had a sad but understandable effect; as Pew reports, “estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.”
But as Matt Yglesias argues at Slate, what’s tough on the industry we’ve known might not be so bad for the society it’s there to serve. The pessimism is…
…not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.
Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…
In any case, it’s worth remembering that the future of newspapers has been a subject of contemplation for over a century… and as Smithsonian‘s Paleofutures blog reminds us, of predictions that have rarely been right.
Many of us here in the 21st century like to think of the newspaper as this static institution. We imagine that the newspaper was born many generations ago and until very recently, thrived without much competition. Of course this is wildly untrue. The role of the newspaper in any given community has always been in flux. And the form that the newspaper of the future would take has often been uncertain.
In the 1920s it was radio that was supposed to kill the newspaper. Then it was TV news. Then it was the Internet. The newspaper has evolved and adapted (remember when TV news killed the evening edition newspaper?) and will continue to evolve for many decades to come.
Visions of what newspapers might look like in the future have been varied throughout the 20th century. Sometimes they’ve taken the form of a piece of paper that you print at home, delivered via satellite or radio waves. Other times it’s a multimedia product that lives on your tablet or TV…
Visit “The Newspaper of Tomorrow: 11 Predictions from Yesteryear” for an instructively humbling trip back to the future.
Over at Harvard Business Review‘s blog, there’s a provocative post by James Allworth: “How Corruption is Strangling U.S. Innovation.”
If there’s been one topic that has entirely dominated the post-election landscape, it’s the fiscal cliff. Will taxes be raised? Which programs will be cut? Who will blink first in negotiations? For all the talk of the fiscal cliff, however, I believe the US is facing a much more serious problem, one that has simply not been talked about at all: corruption. But this isn’t the overt, “bartering of government favors in return for private kickbacks” corruption. Instead, this type of corruption has actually been legalized. And it is strangling both US competitiveness, and the ability for US firms to innovate.
The corruption to which I am referring is the phenomenon of money in politics…
Allworth goes on to provide a series of examples from arenas– the automotive industry, intellectual property, accommodation and transport, telecom– that illustrate his point all-too-painfully well. For example…
When Walt Disney penned Steamboat Willie — the first cartoon with Mickey Mouse in it — copyright lengths were substantially shorter than they are now (but still enough such that it gave encouragement to Walt to create his famous character). And yet somehow, it seems that every time that Mickey is about to enter the public domain, congress has passed a bill to extend the length of copyright. Congress has paid no heed to research or calls for reform; the only thing that matters to determining the appropriate length of copyright is how old Mickey is. Rather than create an incentive to innovate and develop new characters, the present system has created the perverse situation where it makes more sense for Big Content to make campaign contributions to extend protection for their old work.
It’s not just copyright, either — the same mentality has been driving draconian legislation such as SOPA and PIPA.
And finally, if you were in any doubt how deep inside the political system the system of contributions have allowed incumbents to insert their hands, take a look at what happened when the Republican Study Committee released a paper pointing out some of the problems with the current copyright regime. The debate was stifled within 24 hours. And just for good measure, Rep Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville and who received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, apparently had the author of the study, Derek Khanna, fired. Sure, debate around policy is important, but it’s clearly not as important as raising campaign funds.
Allworth didn’t go on; but he could have. He could have elaborated on the abuses in each of the sectors he identified; there’s certainly plenty of material. And he could have added other sectors– financial services, for obvious example. But his important point is well made. (Readers of this blog will recognize the concern, as it’s been a continuing theme here; see “Beware the Land of the Giants,” “Thinking the Unthinkable,” “To Promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts,” et al.)
What’s fascinating– and encouraging– to me is that Allworth’s piece is running at HBR. Lord knows, it’s only too important for that audience: the “corruption” that Allworth describes is poisonously bad for the whole economy and for all of the businesses in it– even for those fearful incumbents whose reflexively greedy moves seem to them to yield short-term return.
* “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power” -John Steinbeck
October 22, 2012
Readers of this blog will know that I am concerned about rapacious and reactionary corporate attitudes to intellectual property rights– see, e.g., “Patently Absurd…,,” ”Caution! Pile up ahead…,” or “I was aiming for my foot, but I seem to have shot myself in the thigh…,” all posts that focus on the dangers of (and to) incumbents who substitute extended rights for innovation; enforcement, for service. It’s cold comfort to read confirmation of that concern in Simon Phipps’ report on the economic impact of patent trolls– the logical extension of the problem: corporations that exists only to exploit patents– in Infoworld…
…Among the other measures in the America Invents Act, passed by Congress about a year ago, section 34 requires the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study on the effects of patent trolls on the economy. The GAO in turn went to a group of academics associated with the Stanford IP Clearinghouse (now called Lex Machina) to gather the data required. Those academics have now supplied the data to the GAO and published their own assessment of the research. Covering a five-year period from 2007 to 2011, it rigorously identifies and classifies patent activities across all industries and uses a statistically significant sample to draw conclusions.
The findings should concern us all. Coining the useful term “patent monetization entity” (as a replacement for “patent troll,” “nonpracticing entity,” and “patent assertion entity” — all terms with either social or technical issues), the scholars have concluded that “lawsuits filed by patent monetizers have increased significantly over the five-year period.” Not only has the number of cases increased, but so has the proportion of these non-product-related litigants, from 22 percent to 40 percent of cases filed. They found that four of the top five patent litigants in America exist solely to file lawsuits.
This is the tip of the iceberg. Among their findings, the academics analyzing the Lex Machina data observed that many cases never reached court, and the main impact of patent monetization entities was probably in the costs they impose way before litigation commences. This is supported by a paper from the Congressional Research Service [pdf], which observes that the main goal of patent monetizers is to extract money from their victims without ever going to court.
The vast majority of defendants settle because patent litigation is risky, disruptive, and expensive, regardless of the merits; and many PAEs set royalty demands strategically well below litigation costs to make the business decision to settle an obvious one.
What’s going on here? One clue comes from the Lex Machina research. They found that technology industry cases constitute 50 percent of all patent suits; in the software industry, Internet-related patents were litigated 7.5 to 9.5 times more frequently than non-Internet patents. When cases actually go to court, they are often unsuccessful, but most lawsuits from patent assertion entities are settled out of court.
Combine that with the evidence that the unseen menace, when threats lead to payments under nondisclosure terms so as to avoid expensive litigation, and the implication grows that this is an abuse of an out-of-date system manifesting itself. It will then come as no surprise that 1 in 6 patents today covers smartphones. Guess what those patent monetization entities want to monetize?…
Just last week, speaking to the London paper Metro, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (a man who has been known himself to use intellectual property as a weapon) lamented,
Patents are supposed to encourage innovation and we’re starting to be in a world where they might start to stifle innovation. Governments may need to look at the patent system and see if those laws need to be modified because I don’t think some of these battles are healthy for society.
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Driving Forces, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: competitiveness, copyright, economics, intellectual property, patent trolls, patents
September 5, 2012
As Apple revels in its recent victory over Samsung, demanding that a range of Samsung’s “look-like-Apple’s” products be banned from sale in the U.S., let us ponder Apple’s own precedents… in particular, its debt to the great Dieter Rams and his range of designs for Braun.
August 24, 2012
For reasons elaborated here, here, and here (among other places), I’m very worried that the efforts of incumbent media giants to extend copyright lengths, expand “enforcement” efforts, and escalate “infringement” penalties will (further) discourage real innovation– and thus real and sustainable economic growth. That these moves are ultimately self-defeating– and kind of suicide– is certainly ironic; but it’s no consolation.
Of late there’s been some good news; consumers in the U.S. and regulators in the E.U. have said “no” to repressive (and in some cases, unconstitutionally-intrusive) grabs by the media industry: SOPA seems dead; ACTA is stalled (with luck, forever)…
But now there’s PPT- The Pan Pacific Partnership. A powerful agreement that is being secretly negotiated between 9 countries, the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, and Brunei. Mexico, Canada, & Japan are in the process of joining it. The Obama Administration (which has been disappointingly complicit with the Legacy Media Agenda– see here and here, for example) is selling PTT as a trade agreement, aimed at easing commerce among the signatories. (It likely also figures into the Administration’s thinking as a balance against The ASEAN–China Free Trade Area [ACFTA], to which China is central…)
As you can see in the State Department’s pitch for the treaty, it does have some potential for encouraging smoother trade among the signatories. But as you can see in this EFF analysis, there is a pretty vicious wolf under that sheepish clothing:
…The TPP will rewrite the global rules on IP enforcement. All signatory countries will be required to conform their domestic laws and policies to the provisions of the Agreement. In the U.S. this is likely to further entrench controversial aspects of U.S. copyright law (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s broad ban on circumventing digital locks and frequently disproprotionate statutory damages for copyright infringement) and restrict the ability of Congress to engage in domestic law reform to meet the evolving IP needs of American citizens and the innovative technology sector. The recently leaked U.S. IP chapter also includes provisions that appear to go beyond current U.S. law. This raises significant concerns for citizens’ due process, privacy and freedom of expression rights…
The details make pretty chilling reading… and when you note that, while there are (so far) only 9 signatories, the treaty will dictate the terms of any bi-lateral trade agreements that any of the 9 enter– so the the effective foot-print would be global.
Copyright– and the larger notion of intellectual property– was rightly enshrined in The Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). But the Framers saw the importance of balance– of moderating the length and scope of protection– since their purpose was “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Sadly, the purpose of copyright law has, over the years; with each revision that’s made, become less about encouraging new innovation than about protecting the old, the status quo… and that is no recipe for growth.
Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.
- Mark Twain
July 28, 2012
Moore’s Law– Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s assertion that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years*– is one of the best-known axioms of our time, a rule of thumb that helps explain the explosion of technological capability over the last several decades, at the same time that it reassures us of advances-to-come. It’s attained this status the old-fashioned way: by being largely right– which is to say reasonably accurately predictive.
But as IEEE Spectrum reports, recent research at the Santa Fe Institute suggests that the broader concept on which Moore’s law was founded, the Experience Curve, is actually a better predictor of technological progress than Moore’s refinement.
Bruce Henderson and BCG tend to get credit for the idea of the Experience Curve (or the Learning Curve)– the notion that the costs of technological items drop with their cumulative production. BCG certainly did make hay with the concept back in the late 60s. But the concept dates back to the 19th Century and the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Then in 1936, Theodore P. Wright observed the phenomenon in aircraft manufacture (“Factors Affecting the Cost of Airplanes,” Journal of Aeronautical Sciences and ”Learning Curve”, Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences), and coined “Wright’s Law” describing the effect.
Moore’s Law seems to be a special case of Wright’s Law; and in fact, Wright’s Law seems to describe technological evolution a bit better than Moore’s—not just in electronics, but in dozens of industries.
A new Santa Fe Institute (SFI) working paper (Statistical Basis for Predicting Technological Progress, by Bela Nagy, J. Doyne Farmer, Quan M. Bui, and Jessika E. Trancik) compares the performance of six technology-forecasting models with constant-dollar historical cost data for 62 different technologies—what the authors call the largest database of such information ever compiled. The dataset includes stats on hardware like transistors and DRAMs, of course, but extends to products in energy, chemicals, and a catch-all “other” category (beer, electric ranges) during the periods when they were undergoing technological evolution. The datasets cover spans of from 10 to 39 years; the earliest dates to 1930, the most recent to 2009.
It turns out that high technology has more in common with low-tech than we thought. The same rules seem to describe price evolution in all 62 areas.
Read the whole story at “Wright’s Law Edges Out Moore’s Law in Predicting Technology Development.”
* “Two years” became, in common understanding, “18 months” when Moore’s colleague David House revised the estimate to account for faster chips contributing to the the acceleration of further development.
February 20, 2012
A guest post from (Roughly) Daily…
From the Kauffman Foundation’s “Sketchbook” series, “Make it Happen,“ a wonderful animation of a recent interview with Tim O’Reilly on the “Maker Movement” (see here and here)– and on what it can teach us about innovation and entrepreneurial energy:
For more, see CNN’s interview with Make‘s founder (and Tim’s long-time publishing partner), Dale Dougherty.
As we return with enthusiasm to our workbenches, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that U.S. Patent No.123,790 was awarded to Silas Noble and James P. Cooley for a device that allowed ”a block of wood, with little waste and in one operation, [to] be cut up in to toothpicks ready for use.” The inventors had been working together since 1854, as drum makers; at the time of the toothpick breakthrough, their company , Noble and Cooley, which remains in the percussion business to this day, was manufacturing 100,000 drums per year.
So, in much the same way that an unplanned byproduct of NASA’s space program was the powdered drink that gave American households a convenient source of vitamin C (Tang), Noble and Cooley’s quest for better drum shells and sticks helped bring down the cost of cleaner teeth and healthier gums…
March 23, 2011
A guest post from (Roughly) Daily…
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
- Bob Dylan
Rebecca Black’s “Friday” has become a runaway sensation. As Kevin Rutherford, a columnist for Billboard, explained, “Black’s video for ‘Friday’ is one of those rare occurrences where even the most seasoned critics of Internet culture don’t know where to begin. From the singing straight out of Auto-Tuned hell to lyrics such as ‘Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes afterwards / I don’t want this weekend to end’ and a hilariously bad rap about passing school buses, ‘Friday’ is something that simply must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated.”
And “seen and heard” it has been, closing in on 34 million YouTube views at this writing– not counting the scores of parodies floating across the web.
Music industry exec Jay Frank captures the impact of a performance that has been called “bizarre,” “inept,” and “hilariously dreadful” with a set of a simple comparisons that illustrate the upending of the music business:
WINNER: REBECCA BLACK
As she’s shown on her Good Morning America interview, she is making lemons out of lemonades. Make no bones about it, this song is selling (reached Top 20 on iTunes) and is going to be a valuable copyright for years to come.
LOSER: EVERY SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST BAND
At my SxSW panel on Saturday, I did the math. If you combined every view of “Friday” and its parody videos, approximately 62 Million minutes were spent on this song. That’s presuming that, on average, the viewers only watched half the video. In the meantime, if the approximately 15,000 SxSW attendees watched 12 hours of music a day for all 5 days, that would only add up to 54 Million minutes spent watching music. All hopes of fame from Austin got upstaged by a 13 year old.
Their ability for anyone to upload anything produces overnight successes like this. This attracts even more people to their platform. Also, this firmly makes them a broadcaster, probably more than any previous video. 21 million views in a week? That’s more than nearly EVERY show on TV (cable or broadcast) receives in a week INCLUDING the DVR play. The fact that they have also successfully conquered with mobile apps and IPTV just increases their reach.
The music industry’s supposed white knight got upstaged in a big way. Turns out quality (of the song or HD transmission) doesn’t matter. The viewer goes to what they want to see. Also, Rebecca Black got more views in 9 days of “Friday” than Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” did in 3x the days. Lady Gaga’s a huge star. Her new video got massive blog pickup like “Friday.” It was also hugely promoted as an “exclusive” on the Vevo site. If “Friday” can beat all that, something is wrong with Vevo and there’s some explainin’ to do.
WINNER: NEW CHART METHODOLOGY
In Austin, I discussed with Eric Charland of Ultimate Chart about how high Rebecca Black will debut next week. With the numbers she’s had, it’s painfully obvious that this dominated the entire conversation. Quality of the song was irrelevant. Since it wasn’t in heavy rotation on pop radio, it likely won’t be at #1 on their chart, but it’ll properly debut high. This will give Ultimate Chart even more credibility on truly leading in identifying a song’s true popularity.
LOSER: THE ALBUM CHART
When the Soundscan Top 200 album chart is released on Wednesday, Adele will be battling a new album by Rise Against. Nothing against either artist, but this week the battle was Rebecca Black vs. everything else. If you use Google search as a gauge, there’s just no competition. The album chart has been irrelevant for quite some time. It no longer reflects our time. This should end the discussion and let’s focus on singles where the business IS rather than albums where the business WAS.
[TotH to Bob Lefsetz]
As we recall that unit sales of the best selling album of 2010 wouldn’t have made the Top Ten in 2000, we might recall that it was on this date in 1973 that U.S. Immigration authorities ordered John Lennon to leave the US within 60 days… thus beginning Lennon’s fight to acquire permanent residency, which he received in July of 1976.
John Lennon’s Green Card (source)
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Driving Forces, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Media and Entertainment, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: Auto-Tune, “Friday”, Billboard, Bob Dylan, Eric Charland, Green Card, immigration, Jay Frank, John Lennon, John Lennon’s Green Card, music, music business, permanent residency, popular music, Rebecca Black, Soundscan, Soundscan Top 200, South By Southwest, SxSW, The Times They are A’Changin, U.S. Immigration, Ultimate Chart, Vevo, YouTube
December 5, 2010
The GFAJ-1 strain of Halomonadaceae bacteria is able to use arsenic in its internal structure, an element considered poisonous to all previously known life-forms (source)
On the heels of the last post, “Dykes, Leaks, Fingers…,” comes news of more change that’s on the way whether we’re ready for it or not– NASA’s announcement that scientists have discovered organisms that can swap phosphorus, a basic building block of life as we’ve known it on earth, for arsenic… and flourish.
It could be that arsenic-based life (or life based on some other surprising element) will turn up somewhere else in the universe; as Randall Munroe quips in the xkcd panels above, that’s what NASA-watchers were waiting to hear. But in any case, the announcement is a clear signal that insofar as the arena of biology is concerned, the ropes are down. The “givens” aren’t necessarily given; the limits… well, there may not be limits, at least none anywhere near where we thought they were. This amounts, as lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon observed, to “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.” Indeed, as Caleb Scharf, a Columbia University astrobiologist, told The New York Times, “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat.”
When the silicon revolution exploded the barriers to faster computation, then communication, large academic/research organizations and mammoth companies took part in the exploration of the new terrain that was opened. But famously– and critically importantly– so did individuals and small groups of hobbyists, hackers. and ultimately, entrepreneurs. Precisely the same pattern is emerging in the exploration of the expanding frontiers of biology.
Huge incumbent institutions like NASA are at work– and so is an already large, and growing, community of “biohackers.” As Nature reports:
…Would-be ‘biohackers’ around the world are setting up labs in their garages, closets and kitchens — from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before. They buy used lab equipment online, convert webcams into US$10 microscopes and incubate tubes of genetically engineered Escherichia coli in their armpits. (It’s cheaper than shelling out $100 or more on a 37 °C incubator.) Some share protocols and ideas in open forums. Others prefer to keep their labs under wraps, concerned that authorities will take one look at the gear in their garages and label them as bioterrorists.
For now, most members of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, biology community are hobbyists, rigging up cheap equipment and tackling projects that — although not exactly pushing the boundaries of molecular biology — are creative proof of the hacker principle. Meredith Patterson, a computer programmer based in San Francisco, California, whom some call the ‘doyenne of DIYbio’, made glow-in-the-dark yogurt by engineering the bacteria within to produce a fluorescent protein. Others hope to learn more about themselves: a group called DIYgenomics has banded together to analyse their genomes, and even conduct and participate in small clinical trials. For those who aspire to change the world, improving biofuel development is a popular draw. And several groups are focused on making standard instruments — such as PCR machines, which amplify segments of DNA — cheaper and easier to use outside the confines of a laboratory, ultimately promising to make DIYbio more accessible…
Meredith Patterson, developing genetically-altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine (source)
Biohacking has a long, if not altogether respectable, pedigree: plastic surgery, performance-enhancing drugs… but then, the earliest tech hackers were often considered outliers– if not indeed, outlaws. The respectability that they gained over the years was a function of the establishment of the new fields– and new markets– they helped build. And as Freeman Dyson observes, that’s sure to happen in the biosphere as well:
… I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee [for computers], becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized…
Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious…
[Read the whole essay, "Our Biotech Future," in The New York Review of Books. And do click through to the letters and responses at the end-- an amazing colloquy.]
As Dr. Dyson observes, there are certainly attendant dangers. But as analogs from the silicon revolution (and indeed, all the way back to the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution) demonstrate, “civilian” participation can speed the development of technologies and multiply the ways in which those technologies can be used. Indeed, the only major technology of which I can quickly think that did not have meaningful enthusiast/tinker involvement was the development and exploitation of nuclear weapons/power (and that’s arguably not far off); others– even capital/research-intensive tech like aviation, telecom et al.– were lousy with it.
So, are biohacking and the ever-democratizing biotechnologies that enable it a good thing or bad? Wrong question. History teaches us that technologies aren’t good or bad, they simply “are.” We experience them positively or negatively as a function of the way that they are used. So surely the better question– given that (like the technological capability that spawned Wikileaks) biohacking is here to stay– is what we can do to assure that its impact is, on balance, good.
This provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover “what it wants.” Kelly uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology’s long course, and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.
This new theory of technology offers three practical lessons: By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come. By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles. And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts.
[From the Viking 2010 catalog]
One doesn’t have to buy (as, FWIW, I do) Kevin’s identification of technology as a “living, evolving organism,” even as a metaphor, to appreciate the wisdom of his conclusions: we need to understand emerging technologies; we need engage them, steer them in directions that are safe and productive– we need, jiu jitsu-like, to turn their power to our collective good.
Attempts to deal with the unfamiliar and often uncomfortable implications of new technologies by outlawing the new technologies themselves pretty routinely fail. But worse, they distract from the need– and the opportunity– to learn how to make use of their new capabilities: e.g., while the RIAA insisted on playing Whack-a-Mole with P2P sites, Apple figured out how to use the new technology to reconfigure the music market with iTunes.
More recently, governments have gone ballistic over Wikileaks, using every direct and indirect means at their disposal to silence the site. But as The Economist observes, “short of imposing Chinese-style firewalls and censorship, free countries cannot consistently stop their citizens finding out…” Nor, one might argue, should they– given that what citizens are “finding out” is the range of things being done in their name and on their dime. But in any case, unless they head for totalitarian extremes, governments will have to find a way to behave that’s not so vulnerable to disclosure: the genie has left the bottle.
About 12 years ago I gave a talk to the senior management of one of the largest multiple-media conglomerates in the world, outlining the technological forces (then) in play, and suggesting ways in which they might disrupt their (then) current business models. At the end, I asked if there were any questions; the manager of one of the older, more traditional businesses, threw up his hand. “Yeah, I’ve got a question: How do we stop this?”
The answer, history confirms: “You don’t.”
[Apologies to Rudy Rucker for appropriating the title of this post from his terrific novel.]
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Environmental, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: Apple, arsenic, arsenic-based life, bacteria, biohacking, biology, biotech, Caleb Scharf, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, Freman Dyson, GFAJ-1, Halomonadaceae, iTunes, Joel Garreau, Kevin Kelly, Meredith Patterson, NASA, Nature, P2P, phosphorus, Radical Evolution, RIAA, Rudy Rucker, technological progress, technological threat, technology, What Technology Wants, wikileaks, xkcd