Hacking the President’s DNA

Almost a year ago, I collaborated with Future Crimes visionary Marc Goodman and bestselling author and writer Steven Kotler to speculate how the advances in personalized medicine could be co-opted for less than altruistic purposes.  We submitted the article to the Atlantic Magazine. The article appears in November 2012 issue, on your newsstand now. (Here’s the online version.)

The piece was founded on super-exponential advance in genetic technologies (DNA sequencing is outpacing Moore’s law by up to 500%) and the fact that legions of scientists are working on new technologies to better target and kill cancer cells.  My thesis is that if we have the technologies to selectively target cancer cells in an individual, where there is a small genetic difference, we can target a particular individual in society (a relatively large genetic difference).  We drafted a future scenario whereby this could be done using technologies that are already here although not widely disseminated and then backstopped the scenario with a review of genetic advances and exponential technologies, something we were all comfortable with given our relationships with Singularity University.

It’s been a long haul getting this article published.  The Atlantic staff was incredibly thorough.  It sent out the submission for external review and fact checked every statement.  We had to address over 170 comments in the manuscript.  I am very thankful to the editors, fact checkers, and reviewers for their diligence.  I hope that you enjoy reading the article as much as Marc and Steven and I enjoyed writing it and that it gets you thinking and talking about our genomic future.

This future is coming fast.  Just a couple of weeks ago, the President’s commission on Bioethics published their latest report on genomic progress and privacy.  Heady stuff.  Last April, another White House report announced a blueprint for the emerging bioeconomy.  Clearly, these technologies are important to national and international interests.  They’re also becoming available to just about anyone that’s interested.

This is easiest seen in the direct-to-consumer DNA sequencing and analysis market, recently profiled in Time magazine.  But it’s also just around the corner on the genetic engineering front, too, with online DNA synthesis companies, community biotech labs and, soon, home kits.  This is reminiscent of thirty years ago, when digital computers became more accessible, eventually revolutionizing the way we do routine tasks, communicate, share, and buy.  Now biotech is going mainstream, too.  Where will this take us is in detail is unknowable but the broad sweeps seem apparent enough.  These technologies are going to cheaper and easier, and more and more people will begin to use them.  Overall, biotech is shaping up nicely to be the next IT industry.

There will be hiccups along the way.  We’re talking paradigms shifts here and these are never easy.  They also tend to take a lot longer than expected to develop roots, often a generation, and they can be scary.  I’ve maintained, however, that the scariest outcome of all is that our fears hold us back from being world leaders with these tools, and that our experience with computing (and all the dynamics therein) will help illuminate the way.