Friday, May 01, 2009

Future of Diseases

So, I've watched this... thing... unfold, watched people vacillate between "OMG THE WORLD IS GOING TO DIE" and "it's completely unimportant". To be honest, I tend towards the latter. But I thought I'd use it to illustrate something about the future.

Biohackers are starting to exist - DIY Bio is not common, but it's going to be, and that's got a lot of people worried. At the risk of using too many snarky capitals, they say "OMG A GEEK IS GOING TO MAKE ANTHRAX 2.0 AND KILL EVERYONE FROM HIS BASEMENT!!!"

Let's use this Swine Flu as an example of how things will really happen. Let's say that this outbreak happened ten years from now instead of now.

In that case, nine years and ten months from now, the biohackers would post about a new strain of flu worming its way across Mexico, putting little flags all over the publicly available "world disease map" they've put together.

Nine years and eleven months from now, the biohackers would point out that it's breaking out in the city. They would also post the genetics of the beastie.

Nine years and 11.5 months from now, Mexico's government would actually notice, and would act just as it became a potential epidemic, rather than a few days after its become an epidemic.


Now why would the biohackers notice?

People seem to think that the DIY Bio movement revolves around manufacturing life forms with fun new genetics in your basement. No doubt there will be some of that. But that's not what we see in other, similar communities.

You see, what amateurs really excel at is collecting a billion tiny, stupid details and cataloging them. The vast majority of people who are involved in DIY Bio won't be doing any significant experiments: they'll just be swabbing bits of city or collecting samples from catches they've set up. Then making a big list of the kinds of things they're finding.

The kind of equipment, expertise, and time required to do that is only a tiny fraction of what is required to actually perform experiments. Hell, you can already collect samples on swabs and send them off to be analyzed for less than ten bucks. There are some very promising technologies coming up that will likely make this kind of basic analysis something that can be done by using a machine the size of a toaster.

The biological health of everywhere is very interesting, and it will become easier and easier for people to collect and share that information, allowing us to create a kind of "weather map" for diseases.


Another huge advantage a modern amateur has is being extremely loud. Classically (even today), a professional will tell a reporter something, the reporter will write it down, and it will get posted somewhere. Usually, the reporter will get it wrong, and the professional has no way to or interest in fixing the error. And even if there is no error, it still quickly becomes obsolete.

On the other hand, as we can clearly see from modern catastrophe response, hundreds of thousands of volunteers will self-assemble to organize the facts. Whatever gets ascertained is analyzed and distributed at maximum speed in a maximum number of useful formats with a minimum amount of error.

Imagine if a biohacker had analyzed Swine Flu. It wouldn't be some two-paragraph little note somewhere: there would be dozens of armchair biologists (or professionals working on their off-time) talking about the specifics of what it means, and running simple little experiments to test other theories.

So if this outbreak had happened in ten years rather than now, it never would have happened at all: the loud, detail-obsessed amateurs would have noticed it and dissected it far in advance of it actually denting Mexico City.


People become obsessed about the idea that biohackers are going to genetically engineer some kind of horrible genetic monster. That's not really a danger.

It's a CONCERN, but not a DANGER. There's a difference. The difference is that a concern is a danger that's being dealt with.

I have no doubt that hundreds of rules and practices will arise around the biohacker community. These rules will probably be mostly to address these theoretical dangers. But the point is that what safeguards need to be built will be built. People outside the realm, people who know next to nothing about biology, shouldn't try to dictate these safeguards. Because they would be, at best, pointless. More likely, they'd force the community underground, at which point the real safeguards wouldn't get put in place.

It's important not to imagine only darkness, especially when you don't know any goddamn thing about what you're imagining. A biohacking community will actually radically reduce the risk of a pandemic, not increase it.

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