The revolution in digital genomics means that we can now begin to treat our DNA as computer code: read it, understand it, even rewrite it. This shift is as momentous as switching from studying a car by watching it move, to actually opening it up, taking it apart, and understanding how the parts fit together. We have taken apart the human machine down to the most fundamental of its parts, its DNA sequence, and it is only a matter of time before we begin to understand what each of the billions of letters in this “code” do. Although we had already started this journey a while ago, the acceleration that the new technology provides allows us to scan through and process trillions of “bytes” of DNA through computing in seconds.
I left grad school as a molecular biologist right when the human genome was about to be sequenced. It was a massive worldwide effort that took 13 years and thousands of people working on it, just so that we can sequence one human genome. Now, it can be done within 3–4 days by a single human. This is the scale of the advance in our DNA sequencing speed since then, which has been accompanied by a similar (and still ongoing) exponential increase in computing power. It is this immense boost in processing power which has driven this new capability. We have just turned a corner into a brand new world where everything is possible. Without exaggeration, we are becoming God, we are becoming Evolution.
Being able to know if we are likely to get cancer at the age of 40 is only one example of the benefits of knowing our own DNA code “down to the last letter”. People, including myself, have used 23andMe, Ancestry and similar databases to begin to understand more about ourselves. Medical research can tremendously accelerate the search for links between our DNA and disease, and engineer new therapeutic biomolecules that “attack bad code” in our DNA, targeting disease at the genetic level, where it starts. It can even begin to custom-design therapies for people based on their genes.
In the impending age of supercomputing, humans are not that complex after all. Suddenly we have become ever so slightly smaller, ever so slighly insignificant.
Soon there will be no more secrets. Effectively, each human being can now be seen as the result of a unique algorithm, its DNA. This is our “genetic algorithm”.
But ofcourse aside from “nature” there is also “nurture”, the environment. In addition to our genetic algorithm, we have all been assigned, whether we like it or not, a “behavioural algorithm”, the one that social media and marketing sites create based on our digital footprint: what we liked, what we bought, what we said. It is this algorithm that allowed Facebook to microtarget voters around the world and allow “dark money” to sway the UK referendum, US election, and many other elections around the world. Algorithms are becoming increasingly more elaborate in using text analytics and “likes” to classify humanity into “microtargets” of people who more or less have similar ideology, similar habits and behaviours.
The abyss of human complexity is much shallower than we thought, and the Cambridge Analytica experience demonstrates that we are ever so much more at risk than before of psychological manipulation on a massive scale. At least for an AI supercomputer.
In the same way that Facebook sold my “behavioural algorithm” and that of 87 million other users to Cambridge Analytica for the price of a croissant, what if 23andMe or Ancestry or a similar company were to also get access to that data? What if a new Cambridge Analytica managed to combine our behavioural code with our genetic code? The creation of the ultimate manipulation and microtargeting tool would become possible.
There are upsides to this, such as harnessing the combination of this genetic and behavioural data to understand links between genetics and mental disease for example. But as the Facebook experience has taught us, the lack of transparency and regulation in protecting people’s algorithmic data means that we could soon see more “experiments” like Cambridge Analytica taking place outside of the lab. The power of this new “digital toy” is so immense that it is irresistible. One could argue it is only a matter of time before it falls into the wrong hands, again. Only this time the capabilities to weaponise it will be even greater.
We could see media manipulation of the most sinister and massive scale. We could come to a point where people can take genetic tests that leave them very little to imagine about their own future, and very little to keep to themselves. A society where we are judged based on how many “errors” we have in our DNA, as opposed to how these errors make us unique and irreplaceable as part of a diverse society.
The beauty of the human race is that there is no perfect human. All of our “algorithms” are imperfect and variations of each other. By coming together in societies, we fill each other’s gaps.
Diversity means having imperfections and, to an extent, psychoses. Too many geniuses to mention that fall under that category. The drive to “classify” humans, either based on DNA or Big Data, risks new forms of discrimination on a nature and scale never before seen.
My book Becoming Imperfect is available through Amazon on Kindle and Paperback.