19 November 2015

How the computing power of genetics will change the world


In an early episode of the Simpsons, a young Professor Frink predicts the future of computing. The nutty scientist predicts that “within one hundred years computers will be twice as powerful, ten thousand times larger and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe can own them”.

This comic comment of course refers to the fact that computers developed far faster, and become far more available, than most could envision in the 1960s or 1970s. Initially computers filled entire rooms, and where mainly used by banks, large research organizations and governments. Mikhail Gorbachev enthusiastically believed that computers would one day save the Soviet planned economy.

Technology and markets went a different route. Italian manufacturer Olivetti launched the first commercial desktop computer in the 1964 New York World´s Fair. The computer, dubbed Programma 101, was priced at $3,200 at the time. This corresponds to $24,400 in 2015 value which would today buy a dozen 21.5-inch iMacs with Retina 4K display. Each iMac has 70 million times more memory than the Programma 101.

A year after the Programma 101 was showcased, Gordon Moore – the co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor – wrote a paper in which he envisioned that the number of components per integrated circuit would double each year for at least another decade. Ten years later, Moore revised the forecast to a doubling every two years. Moore proved right. The forecast has been popularized as “Moore’s law” and has now become a target in the industry. The entrepreneurs and tech-geniuses who created the modern computer industry changed the world. Our smartphones are already beginning to outperform the equipment envisioned to be available in the 23rd century to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

Why did the revolutionary rise of computer power occur? One explanation is that the computers, computers game and IT industry has been the most market-oriented in the world. These new fields evolved before regulators could put their hands on them. Technology has beaten politics. Another is that the technological possibility to implement Moore’s law, creating exponential growth, has been available.

Today the same change is occurring in another field, with equal promise to change our world: genetic sequencing. Remember the Human Genome Project, the massively important undertaking to read the human genetic information? This astonishing accomplishment, which got underway in 1990 and was declared complete in 2003, is most likely going to affect human development more than the Moon landing. Understanding our genetic information makes it possible to create new pharmaceuticals, prevent diseases and prolong human life.

Although very impressive, the decoding of the human genome was much like creating the Programma 101. Astonishing as it was, the information hasn’t to this date been understood more than to a rudimentary level. What functions do different strands of DNA have? What genes change the risk for different diseases? What does this teach us about how to fight diseases? What genes are responsible for repairing cellular and genetic? How can this help us understand and cure cancer; or for that matter understand and alter the process of ageing?

We must take a step away from the first initial stages of human sequencing. Today we have the basic genome of the average human. The next step is to gather genetic information about many more humans and apply it to their medical treatments. Then, we wouldn’t blindly give the same medicines to everybody, but rather adjust the treatment to the unique characteristics of the individual. By comparing genetic characteristics with the health status of various individuals, we can truly begin to map out how the human body works – in general and on a very detailed level.

What we need is an exponentially rapid development of the genetic sequencing technology, something like the Moore’s law of biotechnology. As it turns out, genetic sequencing technology is evolving much more rapidly. The picture below shows the cost of sequencing a human genome. The development has been, least to say, rather fast. In 2001 one had to invest $100 million to sequence a single human genome. In 2006 the cost had fallen to $10 million. In the beginning of 2008 it was $3 million, and in the end of the same year a third of $1 million.

genetic sequencing graph

When such a rapid evolution occurs, we must use a logarithmic scale to be able to follow it. So let’s look at the image below for a second or two. Here the scale is based on a magnitude of ten. This means that the distance between $100 million to $10 million is the same as that from $10 to $1. If the cost of sequencing genes followed a pattern similar to that of Moore’s law, we should have expected a linear decrease on this logarithmic pattern. But the change is occurring even faster than that!

genetic sequencing graph log

Of course, the direct sequencing the human genome is only part of the process of unlocking the mysteries of human DNA, genes, proteins and how they all interact in our bodies. But the astonishing development is surely going to change our world, not least if entrepreneurs are given better opportunities to tap into the potential for improving human health (and if we can avoid the new technology being used to create harm).

Merely 15 years ago genetic sequencing was so pricy that it, literally, as Professor Frink put it, was (perhaps not even) affordable to the richest kings of Europe. Soon it will be available to the general public. It is difficult to envision a scenario where this new technology – alongside the advanced made in biotechnology, functional foods (foods which can combat diseases) and other advancements in life sciences – does not set it marks on society. The obstacle is that whilst computers, computer games and IT have been an unusually free market, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and functional foods are strictly regulated. A little more of free markets is needed to unleash a new era of human progress.

Nima Sanandaji is a Research Fellow at the Center for Policy Studies