2009-12-16

Matter compiler

The thing that frightens me the most with the progress that is being made in biotech can best be explained by analogy.

When (programmable) computers first emerged they were mostly accessible to specialists. Chances were that if you had access to one you needed intimate knowledge of its design to make it do anything useful. Right down to how the logic was realized in hardware -- be it by way of gears, relays, valves or semiconductors. For decades computers was the domain of specialists.

As computers have become more sophisticated those who program them, on average, have become less so. In fact, I would probably not object if someone said that the software industry employs more people who have no idea what they are doing than any other industry. We spend much time bemoaning the fact that "the kids of today" are so far removed from the bare metal they can't even do simple back-of-the-envelope calculations anymore. With ever better tools and ever better programming environments any idiot can (and will) create software.

But computers seem mostly harmless.

What frightens me about biotech is when we start nearing the point where an unsophisticated person is able to synthesize arbitrary base pair sequences at a reasonable cost. Re-creating certain known pathogens would be trivial as their sequences have been published. Indeed, some pathogens are considered too dangerous to be shipped physically between labs, so they are synthesized. But worse still: far more dangerous pathogens could be designed, by accident, and under conditions that are neither controlled nor controllable. With no ill intent.

I can't really see why it should not be possible to build tools that allow unsophisticated people with no real background in biochemistry, or any adjacent field, to tinker with DNA. I bet this exact thought is what makes Bill Joy such a ... bundle of joy when he gives talks on what might lie ahead.


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