The decade of biology?

Written by  //  December 23, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  Comments Off on The decade of biology?

The last 10-15 years have seen great strides in many areas of science and technology, but the areas that have advanced the most in terms of reaching out to the common people have been in or related to telecommunications. Specifically, mobile phones and the Internet have gone from being fringe obsessions of a few wealthy and tech-savvy people in developed countries to being ubiquitous. To take just a few examples: Google (started late 1990s, acquired a business model in 2001, introduced GMail and went public around 2004), Wikipedia (started January 2001), Facebook, PayPal, Amazon, EBay, and many other companies have significantly changed the nature of search, lookup, buying and selling of books, sending and receiving money, and buying and selling items, all done over the Web. In addition, mobile phones come equipped with web browsing and camera/recording capabilities, while mobile phone networks offer high-speed Internet access (3G and 4G) comparable to broadband. Computer hardware, software, and browsers have all been improving too.

While the Internet remains in flux, it is likely that it has matured in many important respects, and the major growth will now be one of increasing volume and penetration rather than fundamental changes in the nature of the Internet. In a TechCrunch interview, PayPal founder and venture capital funder and philanthropist Peter Thiel says:

It’s relatively under valued. So, it be, you know, if you had a choice between Google and Facebook, you should be on Facebook. But, it’s, it’s, I do think, I do think this doesn’t necessarily mean the start up investing is at a good point. So, it’s quite possible that the internet is at in more mature stage than people realize.

And so, there are a lot of people talk about cellphones and mobile applications and we’ve been very nervous about investing in these areas because we think so much the value on these things will be captured by the larger existing companies so that, you know, the yelp of cellphones will be yelp. The Google of cellphones will be Google and so it maybe like the car industry in the 1950’s where it became w as much more important culturally and socially than it was on the 1920’s, it b ecame a lot bigger. But the car companies themselves were actually started in 20’s even though they grew a lot in the 50’s and they transformed the US in the 50’s. If you wanna work in the car industry in 1950 you should join one of the big companies, and if you we’re a technology investor in 1950 you should not have funded new car companies and so.

So what aspect of science and technology will see the most explosive growth in the near future. There could be growth in privately funded space exploration (SpaceX being an example), nanotechnology (which has seen significant strides), or robotics/artificial intelligence. But my personal best guess would be that the coming few years will be the years of biology. Specifically, we’ll see great progress in these areas: personal genomic services, medical innovation spurred by genetic data, and radical life extension.

Personal genomic services

By 2020 (and probably much earlier!) a person will be able to get a full genome mapping for about $100 if living in a developed country (and probably not more than twice as much in a developing country). This full genome mapping will allow the person to track risk factors for diseases — big and small. These services will routinely be used for infants so that their parents know about their health risks from day one. Instead of exchanging horoscopes, people interested in marrying or dating each other will be swapping genomes.

Ronald Bailey has a nice article with a combination of facts and future speculation. Currently, genetic testing (not full genome mapping, but the identification of key gene sequences and SNPs that affect risk factors for important diseases) is available for less than $500 (and if you sign up before 25 December, then you can get a test done by 23andMe for just $99 + shipping and other costs, totaling to less than $200 — offer valid only in some countries). He also predicts that people will get used to sharing their genetic data publicly or semi-publicly.

Medical innovation spurred by genetic data

When lots of people use Google’s search services, not only do they get the search results they were looking for, but Google also gets information about what users are looking for. This information can be seen, for instance, at Google Trends. Google engineers came up with the idea of using Google search traffic to report Flu Trends quickly, and similar real-time information can be gleaned through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Similarly, as more and more people rush to have their genomes mapped, more and more reliable aggregate data will be available, that will allow for correlations between genes and specific medical conditions to be tested for more reliably, without having to spend money separately on expensive large-scale studies. Just recently, 23andMe (one of the personal genomic services companies) received NIH funding for a study to validating this approach for pharmacogenomic research. It’s a win-win: as more individuals have their genomes mapped, the aggregate data gets better and more reliable, which in turn allows the genetic testing companies to offer individuals better assessment of their risk factors and tendencies.

Currently, the use of genetic information is mainly in predicting allergies or possible non-working of some drugs: see here. The growth of personal genomics would make this process much smoother and more integrated, allowing patients to find a drug regime with greater likelihood of success. Universal personalized medicine may be as unremarkable a decade from now as universal personalized search is today. Much of the expertise needed to do this personalization will be incorporated into computers, saving money for patients and consumers and freeing the time of doctors for more tricky pursuits. Ten years from now, you may be able to swipe a card at any pharmacy worldwide, choose your ailment, and have a computer automatically predict the best medicine for you based on your ailment and genome (and other biological factors), and “sell” these medicines to you.

Radical life extension

The twentieth century has been one of the greatest centuries in terms of adding to the life expectancy of people was concerned: life expectancy at the beginning of the century was less than fifty years almost everywhere. Today, it tops 60 years in most countries and exceeds 75 years in most developed countries. In the first half of the twentieth century, the main source of improvement was in better nutrition, better sanitation, and vaccinations. In many developing countries, these approaches have still not been exhausted. But for developed countries, much of the increase in the last fifty years has been in a number of other factors: declining accident rates and declining mortality rates from accidents due to better accident response (including road accidents, home accidents, and fires), declining rates of homicide and war (though this isn’t universal), better post-disaster relief, and, of course, the better medical understanding of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

One of the most promising possibilities for all those who prefer life to death is the possibility of “biological immmortality” (Wikipedia entry) — or the elimination of aging. This does not mean “immortality” in the sense that one cannot die, but rather, that there is no progressive deterioration of body function that makes one more susceptible to death. Probabilistically, this means that every additional day that you survive does not brin you a day closer to death. Evolutionary biologist Michael Rose thinks he already has one possible route to biological immortality.

In practice, what is needed is not biological immortality as much as “escape velocity” — the slowing down of aging to a sufficient degree that it gets postponed to a later time, by which more technological progress can slow down aging yet again. The scientist Aubrey de Grey, who heads the SENS foundation, has identified possible strategies that can be used against all the most common aging mechanisms, and believes that,with sufficient funding, there is a 50% chance of reaching escape velocity by around 2040. He has also started the Methuselah Foundation which uses a prize model to encourage innovation in radical life extension strategies.

Ronald Bailey discusses the Methuselah Manifesto here and discusses the ethical/Malthusian objections here.

Comments are closed.