Most technology breakthroughs these days can be divided into one of two categories. The first category is software; programs that make it possible for us to collect, interpret and act upon data. These are the stories you hear about pieces of code (artificial intelligence, taxi apps, bots, blockchains, social media) and how they're disrupting an economic model that's been around for longer than anyone alive can remember. The other category is hardware; new tools (drones, 3D printing, internet of things, renewables, electric cars) that are giving us increasing control over our physical environment. Software and hardware innovations are of course, mutually reinforcing. That’s what makes their impact so profound.
There’s a third area of technological innovation though, which we don’t hear about as often. We like to call this wetware, an old cyberpunk term that refers to both the application of hardware and software to biological life forms, and the data found in biological systems. That's why we prefer 'wetware' over the more commonly used 'biotechnology.' The former suggests a two-way relationship between the living and the technological world, while the latter reinforces the idea that they're separate. When thought of this way DNA, the immune system and the evolved neural architecture of the brain are all examples of wetware. So are chips implanted in the brain, pacemakers and prostheses that replace or extend bodily functions. Another way to think of wetware is as the operation of technology within or between wet zones: plants, animals, and our own bodies. And the better our machines become, the more wet zones are being reclaimed.
We can now get human cells to revert to their original state using an eraser drug, and then draw those cells into a body using a 3D printing pen to regrow cartilage. We’ve mapped a 100 terabyte slice of connections between neurons in the cortex, and a neuroscientist says he’s deciphered the code by which the brain forms long-term memories. Text-based coding language is being used to program the internal behaviour of bacteria. Scientists are growing functioning ovaries and fully realised, hairy human skin in labs. We can store digital images inside the letters of DNA and search for and retrieve them in high fidelity. We can create nanoscale electronic components from single DNA molecules. Gene editing in human embryos is now legal in Sweden, China and the United Kingdom, and we’ve used it to remove HIV from human immune cells.
This has all happened in the last MONTH.
Ware is this all going?
Most wetware is still immature. The first human genome was only sequenced 13 years ago. We're still in the mobile phone bricks stage. Once wetware really picks up steam it's going to make previous waves of technological innovation look like child's play. If you think shaking up the taxi industry is disruptive, wait until an irresistable trifecta of software, hardware and wetware gets its claws into the $12 trillion global healthcare industry. Our rapidly advancing knowledge of genetics, epigenetics, proteomics, connectomics and the microbiome is going to give us unprecedented control over the basic biological processes of life, affecting everything from malaria vaccines to cancer treatments to ageing. And get ready for a world in which brain implants, coronary nanobots and robotic prostheses become as commonplace as blood tests and wheelchairs are today.
It sounds like bad science fiction doesn’t it? But this is where we live now. We live at the point where the strangest stories are being written by genuine science. Science fiction lost its edge years ago when the real world started getting weirder than anything writers could imagine. Science got to the strange, chilly term gene editing before science fiction did. Genetic engineering sounds archaic now. The weirdness of wetware is going to force us to look really hard at the human condition, and stirs up serious ethical and spiritual dilemmas. Some of the scenarios are genuinely scary too. We've all seen Gattaca right?
That said... don't freak out. Rarely, if ever do our dystopian and nightmarish predictions of the future turn out to be true. Sure, the future is happening faster than we can prepare for. But as Stewart Brand said 48 years ago, “we are as gods and might as well get good at it." If our default position on a new technology is suspicion, then we forfeit the ability to deploy it for our own purposes. We should approach wetware with a sense of possibility, remembering that we’re much stronger than we ever gave ourselves credit for. Our species has dealt with gods, kings, monsters, wars and diseases before. With foresight and a bit of courage, we can certainly deal with biological machines of our own creation.