As I See It: Biology and Technology–the Uneasy Union
August 14, 2006 Victor Rozek
Legend has it that the King of France had a problem. Too many people to kill and too little time. So he commissions a fellow named Joseph-Ignace to invent an expedient way of dispatching the assorted criminals, heretics, and revolutionaries who are deemed enemies of the state. Joseph-Ignace sets to work and, using a Scottish apparatus as a model, creates a device originally called the Louison (no doubt a sardonic tribute to Louis XVI), and presents it to the King. But, alas, Louis is busy with affairs of state and the contraption is moved to some neglected corner of Versailles where it and Joseph-Ignace are mightily ignored.
Well, Joseph-Ignace is not pleased. He worked hard and long perfecting his invention and he wants to be compensated. Periodically he appears at court asking the King for payment. Evidently, however, his appearances become too annoying and his demands too shrill, because one day the King–in a moment of blinding inspiration–asks Joseph-Ignace the decisive question. “But how do we know it will work?”
Before Joseph-Ignace can reply, the King provides a brilliant answer of his own–one that will simultaneously test the device and insure that payment will never be necessary. And that’s how Joseph-Ignace–whose last name was Guillotin–became the first victim of his own invention, a device that eventually dispatched an estimated 40,000 of his countrymen and bears his name to this day: the guillotine.
Although the story turns out to be apocryphal, it nicely illustrates the unintended consequences of our inventiveness. Humans have always had a love/hate relationship with technology, perhaps because our biology and our technology are so often at odds. Prior to the rise of technology, our biology was essentially our destiny. The options available to us were largely dictated by nature, and survival depended on living in some degree of harmony with our surroundings. But technology eliminated the need for harmony by vastly expanding the size of the surroundings we could exploit. In a sense, technology was developed in response to the inadequacies of our biology, and it was driven by the belief that we could, and must, conquer nature.
That task was hastened by a device whose powers to accelerate technology are unprecedented: the computer. It was the computer that allowed local ambitions to become global, and extended global reach deep into space. Computers transformed every aspect of commerce and communication. They redrew scientific boundaries and expanded medical horizons. They redefined how people interact and shattered long-held notions of privacy. Their speed and the volume of data they are able to process have opened a wide range of previously unimagined possibilities. The key was the capacity to do more and to do it faster. And in so doing, computers made sprinters of a species biologically designed to go slow.
The speed of technology stands in sharp contrast to the pace of biology. Biological change is slow; natural processes move deliberately as if following the steady rhythm of an unseen metronome. The pace is relatively constant and biological processes are cyclical unless disturbed or accelerated by technology. Whereas computers, measured in gigabytes and teraflops, have no seasons. They are, by design, always in a hurry, and they speed up life by accelerating scientific discovery and commerce. Computers are to biology what dynamite is to erosion.
But an emerging field seeks to meld biology and computer technology. It is being built on the belief that natural systems can be understood and manipulated with mathematics. (Algorithms, for example, can predict the three-dimensional structure of DNA-encoded proteins.) This intersection of biology and computer science had produced bioinformatics, a field of study that predicts the development of computers based on biology instead of silicon. Such systems are expected to achieve (wait for it. . .) “quantum leaps in processing speed,” which in turn promises to hasten the impacts and consequences of the new technologies they support.
So far, the results have been generally benign and the most celebrated bioinformatic effort is the mapping of the human genome. But bioinformatics is still in its infancy and to date has been primarily concerned with the creation and maintenance of huge biological databases, which scientists around the world can tap, and to which they can contribute. When all of that data begins to accelerate change, it will be exponential. The government, which is funding much of the research, reportedly “envisions bioinformatics changing everything that touches upon life sciences.” That, in itself should give rational people pause.
Bioinfomatics has already been a boon to emerging medical applications. Stem cell and other designer therapies, have been among the first beneficiaries of the confluence of biology and computing. But the idea of cross pollination is catching on elsewhere as evidenced by a variety of fields with similar sounding multi-disciplinary names: cheminformatics, medinformatics, and pharmacagenetics, to name a few.
A troubling feature of this new wave of scientific inquiry is the blurring of the lines between science and life itself. Future commercial applications include such wonders as designer bacteria that eat toxic spills, or can generate natural gas from garbage. Critics voice concern over such potential problems as runaway self-replication, but their voices are barely audible, trampled in the stampede to bring products to the market.
This new-found desire to meld biology and computer technology is even evident in the language used to describe network architecture. The qualities of a “biological architecture” include concepts like “diversity” and “adaptability,” “simplicity,” “self-organization,” “emergence,” and “evolution.” But even if machines were capable of such things, the forced association of biology and technology is wishful and artificial at best. If there is one thing that biology and technology do have in common it is that they both demand adaptation and are merciless to those unable to achieve it.
Technology is already effecting biology in unprecedented ways. It is speeding up biological processes and we are seeing the results in such phenomena as extinctions and planetary warming. The concept that technologists evidently overlook is that in biology everything is connected and interdependent. As John Muir discovered, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Although computer technology has long demonstrated an appreciation for the value of connectivity, only its users can behave in ways that respect our biological interdependence.
The global consequences of messing with biology are as yet unknown but, if the past is any indicator, they are predictable: reinventing biology will bring great good and great harm. The fault lies not with the technologies themselves, but with the recklessness of the people who will be using them.
I first heard the guillotine story from my high school history teacher. Who knows where he first heard it, but true or not, it certainly helped bring history to life and his students were, as I recall, enthralled by its telling.
During the writing of this article, I became curious to find out what had really happened. As it turns out, the actual account is a bit different. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was in fact a learned and peaceful man. He was a professor of literature, a doctor, and a politician–one of the ten deputies from Paris who served in the Assemblee Constituante. Guillotin was a reformer who wanted to abolish the death penalty. He was appalled at the cruelty of the methods of execution, which included burning, hanging, and mutilation. Unable to abolish capital punishment, he helped invent a machine that he believed would provide the condemned with a “painless” death.
So, as we proceed with our well-intended attempts to fuse biology and technology, it might be useful to periodically stop and consider the legacy of Guillotin. His invention was the main feature in what became known as “The Reign of Terror,” and he was just trying to be a humanitarian.