Technology Inventing Needs

from the biotech-inventing? dept

A very interesting opinion piece over at Tech Central Station that starts out discussing how technology often creates a need rather than the other way around (for instance, many people feel they absolutely need a mobile phone, but fifteen years ago had no idea what one was). However, then the article begins to wonder what this means for the biotech world. Right now, most of the work in biotech is being designed to serve a particular need. Going forward, however, this may not be true. This will lead to some very big ethical questions, such as how humans understand themselves and how governments get involved in biotechnology choices.

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dorpus says:


I work in the biotech industry, and I can tell you the pace of innovation is far slower than other computer fields. Progress is measured in decades, and will continue to be so.

Computers are good at calculations that involve only a few variables, but are mostly ineffective for insight into more complex biological problems that involve thousands of variables. Here, astute empirical observations are more important than crunching numbers fast.

Much hype was made out of “decoding the human genome”, but real scientists know this is a mostly worthless accomplishment. I could pull a lot of 1’s and 0’s out of my computer, but it is not helpful for understanding how the computer works as a whole. Human biochemistry has to be understood much better before we could begin to make use of genomic data. We still don’t have a clue to the protein folding problem, and it will be decades before we have even a primitive understanding of it. Brute-force computing will need to be millions of times more powerful to solve even simple protein sequences.

The past decade has, if anything, seen a slowing of progress. There was hot air about gene therapy, which died down. We were supposed to have an AIDS vaccine by now. Polio was supposed to be erradicated by now. Prozac is not really different from anti-depressants that already existed in the 1980s; only it has been marketed more extensively. About the only real innovation of the 90s would be Viagra, which is being misrepresented as some sort of aphrodisiac.

Asthma and allergies have reached crisis proportions, to the point that 1/4 of Americans have some sort of allergy problem today. However, treatment of allergies has stayed the same since the 1920s — benadryl is still the wonder drug, only it puts people to sleep. They’ve come out with a lot of “new” mediocre drugs which still don’t work as well as benadryl. Our understanding of the human immune system remains primitive, and computers have yet to offer any insight. Again, this is a problem that involves thousands of variables, most of them not well understood.

The health care industry remains an almost entirely non-computerized place, where patients in hospitals have to give their name and social security number 7 times to nurses who scribble them in paper and pencil.

Many attempts have been made at making better use of IT in health care, but there are entrenched interests against doing so. Health care providers do not want to share data with health insurers; doctors do not want to share data with each other. There is a lot of plain ignorance and incompetence, where doctors are afraid of computers and want to stay away from them. One of my former employers had a contract to supply IT systems to Stanford Univeristy Hospital; nobody at Stanford thought to back the data up, so when the server crashed, millions of dollars of data were instantly lost. Stanford got very angry and dismantled their IT system.

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