The Biotech Revolution — Will It Be Televised?

HealthThere’s a new tech revolution on the horizon and just like the fun gadgets we all love to play with so much today, this one is going to change our lives dramatically. In fact, this revolution will impact our lives far more than the current silicon tech revolution.

But you don’t hear much about it really. Bits and pieces, stories, show up on the internet, on our televisions, or we hear about them on Science Friday on NPR, but then they vanish back into the information matrix of the planet and we forget about them.

I think the reason for this is twofold. The first reason is typical of our mass media and its gnat-sized attention span, and unfortunately, the equally limited ability many of its reporters to grasp the science fully and what the new R&D could mean.

The second reason is simpler: We’re terrified.

Okay, there have been a lot of positive developments in medical biotechnology starting with the discovery and development of insulin, up to the recent use of neutralized HIV viruses to infect T-cells re-engineering them to successfully attack leukemia cancer cells.

There are machines being developed now to custom-print a replacement for a broken bone, and ones that can create bespoke drugs fitted to a patient’s genetic profile. There is even a new technology to grow organs, again specific to one patient, on specially built “cell scaffolding.

But this isn’t the reason we’re all a little nervous. All those developments will help us live longer and (if we can just figure out how to bring out current planetary resource needs ratio down closer to 1:1) that doesn’t sound too bad.

But there are, of course, other sides to all of this tech development. The cost of DNA profiling has dropped dramatically over the last ten years. This, of course, means that health insurance companies, as well as the government will probably want your complete genetic profile — in order to protect you, of course — within the next 20 years.

And, if we can grow organs, why not whole humans? Although most Americans will be turning and running full speed away from that idea (except for cloning their pets which seems to be an ongoing obsession) you can bet that some North Koreans are thinking about how they could bring back their Dear Leader.

Speaking of mass mind control, what about all the new brain research coming out? We are closer and closer to finding the answers to dementia, but once we find them, why not just prescribe drugs and therapies so that people can maintain their intellectual activity level and not have to suffer any slowdown? (And these reinvigorated seniors will of course want to keep working past age 65, way past.)

We’ve even been able to build machines controlled solely by our minds. This development is creating a huge opportunity for patients with paralysis, and those with “locked-in” syndrome may soon be far freer than we could ever have hoped. (In the Only in Japan category, this technology was immediately put to good use by creating a “cat ears” headset that reflects the wearer’s mood. Not cat-earssurprisingly, they are very popular.) One researcher has even asked to begin recording Stephen Hawking’s brainwaves for research purposes (kind of like a 21st century version of analyzing Einstein’s brain.)

But if we can read brainwaves and translate them into machine actions, couldn’t we also alter people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors?

I’ve been a science fiction as well as science fact reader for most of my life. One of the most challenging things for a science fiction writer to do is to project from current trends into the future. Many SF writers have commented over the last 20 years that it is hard for them to keep up with the speed at which technology of all kinds is developing. But those who do venture into the uncharted territories of our biotech future come back with some amazing discoveries.

One short story that has stuck with me for many years (and my apologies — I cannot seem to track down the author) involved a mother at home late in the evening with her two daughters. The younger daughter was complaining loudly that she did not want to go to bed, that couldn’t she stay up a little longer? The mother insisted that no, she couldn’t, she needed her sleep. So the little girl went to bed and the mother continued on some work she had brought home from the office. And her older daughter continued her studies. All night until morning. The human need for sleep had been eliminated for adults and older children. As well as the need for dreams.

I think that’s why we are not talking about the coming biotech revolution as much as we should be, and why we are terrified. But we really need to start talking. Soon.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. For a fun romp around the future including some of the ideas above — at least according to Popular Mechanics — check out their recent article, 110 Predictions for the Next 110 Years.

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