Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hacking life

Freeman Dyson thinks teenagers are going to be engaged in biological and genetic hacking in the none too distant future.

" DYSON: Because von Neumann thought that he was dealing with unreliable hardware, he made another mistake. The problem was how to write reliable software so as to deal with unreliable hardware. Now we have the opposite problem. Hardware is amazingly reliable, but software is not. It's the software that sets the limit to what you can do.

My prediction or prognostication is that the same thing is going to happen to biotech in the next 50 years, perhaps 20 years; that it's going to be domesticated. And I take the example of the flower show in Philadelphia and the reptile show in San Diego, at both of which I saw demonstrations of the enormous market there is for people who are skilled breeders of plants and animals. And they're itching to get their hands on this new technology. As soon as it's available I believe it's going to catch fire, the way computers did when they became available to people like you.

It's essentially writing and reading DNA. Breeding new kinds of plants and trees and bushes by writing the genomes at home on your personal machine. Just a little DNA reader and a little DNA writer on your desk, and you play the game with seeds and eggs instead of with pictures on the screen. That's all.

LLOYD: One of the reasons computers became ubiquitous is the phenomenon of Moore's Law, where they became faster and more powerful by a factor of two every two years. Is there an equivalent here?

DYSON: Exactly the same thing is happening to DNA at the moment. Moore's Law is being followed as we speak, both by reading and writing machines.

LLOYD: At roughly the same rate?


VENTER: It's happening faster. I had this discussion with Gordon Moore and I said that sequence reading and writing was changing faster than Moore's Law, and he said, but it won't matter, as you're ultimately dependent on Moore's Law.

DYSON: I agree with that. At the moment it's going fast.

CHURCH: Unless we build bio-computers—right now the best computers are bio-computers.

BROCKMAN: It took two weeks for a 17-year-old to hack the iPhone—and here we're talking about DNA writers and readers. That same kid is going to start making people.

DYSON: That's true, the driving force is the parents, not the scientists. Fertility clinics are a tremendously large and profitable branch of medicine, and that's where the action is. There's no doubt this is going into fertility clinics as well. For good or evil, that's happening.

BROCKMAN: But isn't this a watershed event because of our ideas about life? What's possible will happen. What will the societal impact be?

DYSON: It's not true that what's possible will happen. We have strict laws about experimenting with human subjects.

BROCKMAN: You can't hack an iPhone either; certain activities along these lines are illegal.

DYSON: But it's different with medicine. You do get put in jail if you break the rules.

BROCKMAN: Not in Romania.

DYSON: There are clear similarities but also great differences. Certainly it is true that people are going to be monkeying around with humans; I totally agree with that. But I think that society will put limits on it, and that the limits are likely to be broken from time to time, but they will be there."

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