Sprague Word

The future and more from Richard Sprague

Posted by sprague on May 17, 2003

Consumer Biology

”High tech” the way I know it is built on the semiconductor industry. Anybody from my generation who was interested in computers naturally felt most at home among people studying physics and math. Even when we ventured far beyond semiconductors, to philosophy or linguistics into artificial intelligence, we saw everything in a binary light; and even today when we think of adjusting our careers, we are most comfortable moving toward, say, telephony, networking, or video—digital technologies that fundamentally apply the logic of electrical engineering and the semiconductors they are built from.

But semiconductors aren’t the only way to get there, a fact that we knew peripherally through our friends who studied neurology and psychology.

The future will be based on biology, not semiconductors

Life is complicated

With computers, the building blocks are small and simple. Even the humble transistor created a multi-billion dollar industry for radios and amplifiers that directly built infrastructure necessary for computers, decades before the physics would support it.

But in biology, the building blocks yield no practical or profitable applications for decades. A momentous discovery like DNA—the biotech equivalent of the transistor—didn’t make profits for anybody for 30 years.

By necessity, the business is driven by medicine and agriculture.

Modern agriculture relies on better understanding of breeding and genetics. Most of the big revolutions in medicine for the past century rely entirely on new discoveries in molecular biology.

But a collision is happening between computers and biology that removes the barriers to entry

Genomics is the just the first example. To a biologist, a “gene” is a test tube full of chemicals, surrounded by expensive, industrial lab equipment with exotic ingredients purchased from specialty suppliers, and specially-purified air and water.

But to a computer scientist it’s a string of letters waiting to be processed by a database. Your PC can connect via the Internet to a huge, public-domain database that contains the letters of almost every gene ever discovered.

Fantastic discoveries are being made every day because now you armed with a PC can process these genetic strings to find new things about people, plants, and animals that previously required years training and special equipment.

Consumer biology

I predict the rise of a new industry, consumer biology, which uses the science behind biology to make cheap, mass-market consumer products without the hassles associated with today’s biotech. There are already a few examples:

  • Digiscent:

    A couple of Stanford undergrads, fresh from making a million or two off selling a computer program to some pharmaceutical company, had the idea of reverse-enginering the the human olfactory system.

  • Nexia Biotechnologies
  • A company in Quebec reverse-engineered the genes that make spider webs, in order to manufacture fabrics that are stronger and lighter than steel.

  • Diagnostics
  • Plenty of new medical consumer products are appearing that test for various medical conditions, but soon there will be simple, cheap tests for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to comparative genealogy.

    Further out, I think most of the applications you see talked about in the nanotechnology space will actually be realized with biology first. “Superbugs” that manufacture cars or gasoline are much easier to make than nano-level machines built from semiconductor processes. I think I”ll see those applications during my lifetime, but not early enough to make a career out of it.

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