Arnold Kling  

Potentially Disruptive

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Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas write,


In the near future, synthetic genomics technology should make it possible to recreate any existing virus for which the complete DNA sequence is known. At the same time, the advent of high-throughput DNA synthesis machines will cause the associated costs to drop precipitously, continuing the existing trend. In the year 2000, the price of custom oligonucleotides was about $10 per DNA base-pair; by early 2005, Blue Heron Biotechnology of Bothell, Washington was charging only $2 per base-pair (discounted to $1.60 for new customers). Over the next five years, the cost of synthetic DNA is expected to drop to about 10 cents per base-pair or even less, according to a recent report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. In December 2004, George M. Church of Harvard Medical School and Xiaolian Gio of the University of Houston announced that they had invented a new “multiplex” DNA synthesis technique that Church claims will eventually reduce the cost of DNA synthesis to 20,000 base-pairs per dollar. If his prediction is borne out, it will transform the economics of genome synthesis.

Some people have a hard time believing the vision for nanotechnology, because they think that self-replication will be impossible. The counter-argument is that life represents an "existence proof" for the possibilities of self-replication at the small-scale level.

If you are trying to engineer stuff using tiny building blocks and self-replication, inorganic nanotechnology makes it relatively easy to control the properties of what you make but relatively difficult to achieve self-replication. With synthetic biology, self-replication is less difficult, but controlling the properties of what you make becomes more difficult.

The orders-of-magnitude declines in cost for synthetic biology that Tucker and Zilinskas describe strike me as potentially disruptive. From an economic point of view (and I know nothing about the science), it would lead me to bet that synthetic biotech will overtake inorganic nanotech, even though right now the latter might appear to be ahead.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
John Brothers writes:

To some degree, this is like saying that since we have have wood, why would we need metal? Some robots will be grown, others will be manufactured. Still others will be manufactured from grown substrates, and others will be grown on manufactured substrates.

Having said that, the synbios are much, much more likely (approaching 1) to turn viral and devour other living things in their quest to replicate. It could end up very badly, but I remain optimistic that there will be significant positives to outweigh the negatives.

Dan Theunissen writes:

IEEE Spectrum interviewed Senior IEEE Fellows within the last 2 years, they overwhelmingly voted nanotechnology as over-rated and biotechnology as far more likely and far more disruptive.

Matt writes:

Just to put my two cents in. Biotech will make the biofuels industry work with enzymes and engineered algae.

Going further, the biotech industry should let us set the co2 levels we like and thus engineer the climate of the glacial cycle.

Going further, biotech, as it solves the biofuels problem could get out of and and throw us in the worse ice age of earth's history.

Matthew Cromer writes:
Some people have a hard time believing the vision for nanotechnology, because they think that self-replication will be impossible. The counter-argument is that life represents an "existence proof" for the possibilities of self-replication at the small-scale level.

That depends on the assumption that life is nothing more than the behavior of a class of reductible molecular machines based on biochemistry.

There is a lot of evidence that life is an evolved field phenomena that uses biochemistry, but is not reduceable to it. Evolved, emergent, holistic properties.

If that is the case, we will never be able to build machines that can do what life does. That leaves bioengineering as the sole vehicle for self-replicating nanotech.

Daublin writes:

I believe that wide use of nanotechnology is a matter of decades away, and I can only picture it as radically changing many things.

Production will skyrocket. Everyone will have their own nano-builder, because there is a demand and because these things can mass-produce themselves. The result is much like the computer revolution, where anything you can imagine, you can make -- only with nanotech, you can make *physical* things as well as software.

It seems reasonable to expect that mass production as we know it will disappear. Instead of snail-mailing things, the seller will email you the program and you will then run that program in your own personal nano-factory to get the item. Car parts would not need to be stocked; the mechanic could "print" you a new part whenever needed.

Anyone interested in nanotechnology ought to read Drexler's book Enginers of Creation:

http://www.foresight.org/EOC/

It is a great read about what is coming. Drexler is short on specific predictions, but does have some meta-suggestions about how to approach the changes.

Dog of Justice writes:

The thing that disturbs me is that it's easier to use this technology to create something destructive than it is to create something useful.

Computer viruses sometimes do a fair amount of damage, but they don't kill people. They are also usually easier to counter. When bored teenagers can design real viruses and get them made on the black market, that's probably the end of humanity.

Don't get me wrong, I love the upside of this technology. But we may need to control its use as carefully as that of nuclear technology.

Dezakin writes:

More arguments for control that will lead to even more authoritarian and paternal governments. Wonderful future.

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