Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ultimate possibilities for life and technology

Thinking really long term, what would it be like if all matter, including life, could be designed and built to specification with nanotechnology and synthetic biology? Form factor could become ephemeral and purpose-driven. An intelligence could embody as a human, as a fleet of starships, as a crane, as a school of nanoparticles, or remain digital.

Some interesting issues could come up, say from having multiple persistent copies of one intelligence. What would the social, legal, economic etiquette and governing laws be? Or would these words even make sense anymore? The notion of the distinct individual may become obsolete.

Transhumanism will be an interesting and certainly divisive step, when groups or all humans have radically enhanced capabilities as compared with today. Posthumanism, the moment of speciation, may be quite a shock.

What about utility functions? In a digital format, traditional biological functions make a lot less sense. And what about emotion? Is there a relevant adaptation for the digital substrate or is emotion just another biology-based information system?

What is intelligence and is it reflected differently in a digital medium without the sensory input context of the physical world? Maybe intelligence is nothing more than manipulating patterns of information.

Finally, what are the ultimate possibilities for life and technology once joined? What if any would the activity be? Would the focus be on aesthetics? Analytics?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Roadmap for Synthetic Biology

The most pressing issue in Synthetic Biology is building the groundwork to eventually advance to large-scale commercialization. How can the field’s growth from fringe to core be accelerated? A strategic plan for the Synthetic Biology ecosystem addressing academic, commercial, geopolitical and policy issues would help.

Academically, how many new bioengineering departments per year could be added? Open source course materials are available. Undergraduate and graduate bioengineering program templates including financing guidance, an industry association, faculty databases and implementation mechanisms are needed. Current academic conferences and journals could be expanded to reflect industry growth. There could be regional hands-on workshops for different levels of trained professionals and interested high-school students, similar to Math Jamborees.

Regarding enabling tools, there is a need for research and development, access ease, standardization and scale-up. Existing tools such as the PartsRegistry, OpenWetWare and Gingko Bioworks need to be taken to the next level. Academic and corporate research programs and incubators could develop a strategic roadmap for tools. An IEEE committee could be devoted to Synthetic Biology.

Commercially, there could be specific programs to involve the financing community. Venture Capital-backed SynBio Incubators could be initiated with conferences, programs, technology transfer and onsite startup incubation. Non-academic conferences, marketing and outreach programs, contests, prizes and X Prize grand challenge competitions could reside at incubators.

Safety protocols for practitioners and public discourse is a critical area for the success of Synthetic Biology. Asilomar and the Geneva Conventions could be helpful analogs for policy development.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Gene Encyclopedia of all Life

A tremendous resource would be an open gene database of all of the genes present in eukaryotic, archaeal and bacterial life. There are several open genomic databases now but the information is organized around genomes and organisms rather than specific genes and gene function.

A gene database of all life is in the same vein as E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, but at the next level of detail. The Encyclopedia of Life hopes to provide a webpage with scientific information for every known species on Earth. The gene database would provide a webpage and scientific details for each gene present in life and include other information such as a cross reference to all of the different species in which the gene is expressed.

Merge the Entrez Genome Project and the PartsRegistry
The foundations and perhaps the vision and obviousness of a gene database of all life exist but not its targeted pursuit as a funded research priority. Existing genomics databases such as the U.S. NCBI’s Entrez Genome Project database could be extended and merged into one database that is more explicitly searchable by gene function, possibly joining forces with the PartsRegistry from synthetic biology which provides a homepage, datasheet and genomic sequence by gene or biological function.

NCBI’s Entrez Genome Project database genomic catalog of all life

Unifying the work of E.O. Wilson, Craig Venter, Penny Boston and Drew Endy
An interesting project would be the unification of the Encyclopedia of Life, genomics-by-organism databases and parts registry-by-gene databases together with the aggressive pursuit of cataloguing and sequencing newly discovered organisms and genes. A gene encyclopedia could rapidly extend human knowledge and facilitate the era of personalized medicine as these novel genes could have extensive application in human therapies and pharmaceuticals, energy, climate management, agriculture and other areas.
Tremendous novelty and diversity remains unstudied with species (E.O. Wilson), with organisms in the sea (Craig Venter), and with extremophile life in caves (Penny Boston); 70-90% novel organisms, most of which have not had any gene identification and sequencing, functional assessment and cataloging.

A data resource like a gene encyclopedia could also uplevel the research focus to analytics. It will be interesting to see if an era of fully fungible genes across life arises, how easy it is to transplant function and how function expresses differently in different life forms.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Societal Design 101

Social construction and economic design like that in Dubai/the UAE is particularly interesting in two ways: what it suggests for the future of technology on Earth and in the context of designing space-based societies such as on the Moon, Mars, asteroids and orbiting satellites.

Newtech adoption as geopolitical strategy

On Earth, as technological advances are accelerating and emerging in more areas, early adopter societies, particularly less democratic ones, could mandate technology implementation and move ahead quickly. Imagine that Singapore for example, has a big push into molecular nanotechnology and develops diamond mechanosynthesis or requires adoption of life extension technologies, generating a citizenry suddenly much healthier and more productive with longer life spans, perhaps increasing GDP by one or more orders of magnitude. There will likely be a variety of worldwide responses and uptake patterns to futuretech as it emerges, possibly creating a far greater range of human diversity than currently exists. Genetically-modified food, human genomic testing and stem cell research are contemporary examples of diverse national responses to newtech.

Space-based societal design
Constructed rather than organically grown Earth-based societies are a good template for a potential Moon base and other space-based communities; societies like the Antarctic science outposts and managed economies such as Dubai and the UAE. There could certainly be any variety of non-Earth-based societies with differing levels of political and social restrictions and freedoms. Especially in the early days, stricter regimes are more likely to prevail for survival, safety and cohesion reasons.