|Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak and deCODE Genetics CEO Kari Stefensson|
Today’s plenary panel session at the MIT Technology Review conference brought together a diverse group of inventors to talk about emerging technologies that will change the world. First we heard from Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. Woz gave an animated talk about the importance of simplicity in new technologies.
“We all want computers to be simple,” he said, but software keeps getting more and more complicated, which in turn discourages us from learning new programs. In other words, why move on to the next generation of software when you’re just getting comfortable with the last generation?
“When I was young, I had a great transistor radio, and it was neat and easy, and it was portable,” he said, describing an ideally simple technology. “And all my life I’ve favored products that came in that category…. I just don’t like products that are – ugh! – rigid and fixed. If you can’t throw it out the window, don’t trust it.”
For Wozniak, his own easy-going personality made a significant impact on his approach to building new technologies. “Being lazy was one of the keys in all of my [computer] designs,” he explained. Use less parts, keep it simple. And if you can cut down on the number of parts in an invention, “maybe you can create something that the masses can afford and use.”
When he and Steve Jobs were developing the first Apple computers, he realized that computers had to be affordable if they were to stimulate the market. So designing them as elegantly and efficiently as possible made good business sense. “That’s where the cutting of parts and of chips came in,” he said. “So it was trying to think out the whole product and the whole price. Every cent you save is another cent of profit you can make.”
Woz noted that simplifying and streamlining processes applies to ICT services as well. He marveled at Philadelphia’s plans to connect the entire city with wireless Internet access. “Oh my gosh!” he exclaimed. “You take out all the accounting procedures, you can cut the cost of it per person down to nothing, making it really efficient. If only the government could do that!”
Wrapping up his talk with comments on the role of technology in education, he said, “We’ve got a lot of computers being used, but it’s more important to inspire the kid than deliver the right content. And the more human a computer seems, the more it attracts kids. But true artificial intelligence in educational software in which a program *really* understands a kid’s personality is a long way off.”
Following Woz’s remarks, Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics talked about his company’s ambitious, effort to collect DNA samples from all of Iceland to develop a new generation of pharmaceuticals.
“I come from a family of storytellers,” Stefansson began. “My father was a writer, my grandfather a storyteller. And if you look at human genetics, you get to pry into the history of man. And one of the basic instruments we’re using is the genealogy of the nation. We have the genealogy of the entire nation going back 1100 years in time.”
Beyond the medical advancements that could be achieved through such an effort, Stefansson was able to use the DNA data to confirm the oral traditions regarding Iceland’s collective family tree. “There was a book written 1000 years ago called the Book of Settlement, in which the Vikings and their slaves settled down into Iceland,” he explained. Based on their DNA sampling, they discovered that about 75% of the Y chromosome DNA samples – the DNA passed down from father to son – indeed contained Norwegian origins. Additionally, when they examined the nation’s mitochondrial DNA – passed down from mother to child – the results suggested many of Iceland’s ancestral mothers came from the British Isles. “So when the Vikings went to England, took all of their pretty women and brought them to Iceland.”
Returning to the topic of how his work relates to medical innovation, Stefansson continued, “The basic unit of all life isn’t an atom or a molecule. It’s bits of information written in G’s and T’s and A’s and C’s”: the four protein combinations that string together in a helix to form our DNA. By analyzing the DNA of the entire nation of Iceland, deCODE Genetics has begun to test several new drugs that specifically work to address illnesses, like heart disease, that can be passed down from parent to child.
“We have isolated quite a few genes predisposed to common diseases,” he said. “We isolated a gene that’s connected to myocardial infraction.” They’re now in the second phase of a clinical trial of a medicine based on this information.
“Genetics hold certain promise,” he concluded. “It will change the way we do medicine.”
“We are in the golden age of invention,” began Edward Jung of Intellectual Ventures. “From the inventor’s perspective, this is a great time to be an inventor.” Most people, he said, think of the 20th century as the golden age of invention, particularly due to the advances in science and biology, and the change in markets that allowed companies to embrace innovation rapidly. “But the need for invention hasn’t diminished; in fact it’s increased.”
“You can look any one of those [inventions] that happened over the last 100 years, and now they’re changing fundamentally,” he continued. “Cameras, radio, surgery, cars, transistors, airplanes, are all going through monumental change due to the fast pace of innovation. But now the ability to innovate goes beyond where most companies are willing to take risks,” which leaves the inventors to take the lead.
A new generation of invention is taking hold worldwide, Jung said. “I’m amazed about the unprecedented freedom in the ability to innovate.” For example, after decades of stifling intellectual creativity, China is now booming with innovation.
“Bringing a product to market is much more efficient now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.” With the new generation of inventors, “Companies will find it hard to contain them.” The Dean Kamens of the world are able to bring their ideas to market by attracting their own financing directly, becoming entrepreneurs in their own right.
“When you have a lot of invention going on, you really have to go about encouraging invention as well: to inspire them to invent and take risk… To dare to dream big…”
The session concluded with a presentation by J. Craig Venter, president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics. Genome sequencing has revolutionized biology in ways that were previously thought impossible, he explained. “When I was doing my graduate work, I was told it’d be difficult to do anything new in biology, since everything we needed to know was already known,” Venter said. Apparently, his professors never imagined the scientific tidal wave in DNA research that would become known as genomics.
Advances in technology, along with the ever-decreasing cost of DNA sequencing, have allowed genomic research to progress at a furious pace. “I spent 10 years trying to find one gene, and now we have systems in which we can discover hundreds of thousands of genes an hour, millions a day,” Venter continued. “It’s only nine years since we sequenced the first genome, yet we’re now seeing a continuous exponential expansion…. We’ve done hundreds of genomes, from plants, to insects, the dog genome.. ..This is continuing to go on.”
His latest venture is the Ocean Microbial Genomic Survey (http://www.sorcerer2expedition.org), a scientific maritime adventure following the path of Charles Darwin’s ship around the world, surveying microbes in the water every 200 miles. The survey has been an equal mix of scientific discovery and political wrangling, as they’ve had to negotiate with national governments just to be allowed to take barrels of ocean water in their sovereign waters. This proved to be a major challenge in the Caribbean, where various nations claim overlapping sovereignty over particular stretches of ocean. “Because we’ve found so many genes, all these countries want to file patents on them, because they think they’ll find some value.”
To date, this research has surveyed 2.5 billion base pairs of DNA, equaling five million new genes from 7,000 species. Now, their expedition has arrived in Australia and is headed to Africa by way of the Indian Ocean.
Venter’s work has already reached the point where they can create artificial single-cell organisms. Soon they’ll be able to create multi-cell species. The fiction of Jurassic Park may not be so fictional after all – though Venter said such advances should be applied to preserving endangered species rather than reviving long-lost ones.
“Biology and computing will start to merge,” Venter concluded. “In the future we’ll design computers in which their design is driven by biology and DNA.”