Natural bioterrorism might be the bigger threat, and the value of citizens educated in biosciences can't be overstated.
You don’t get very far discussing synthetic biology and biohacking before someone asks about bioterrorism. So, let’s meet the monster head-on.
I won’t downplay the possibility of a bioterror attack. It’s already happened. The Anthrax-contaminated letters that were sent to political figures just after 9/11 were certainly an instance of bioterrorism. Fortunately (for everyone but the victims), they only resulted in five deaths, not thousands. Since then, there have been a few “copycat” crimes, though using a harmless white powder rather than Anthrax spores.
While I see bioterror in the future as a certainty, I don’t believe it will come from a hackerspace. The 2001 attacks are instructive: the spores were traced to a U.S. biodefense laboratory. Whether or not you believe Bruce Ivins, the lead suspect, was guilty, it’s clear that the Anthrax spores were developed by professionals and could not have been developed outside of a professional setting. That’s what I expect for future attacks: the biological materials, whether spores, viruses, or bacteria, will come from a research laboratory, produced with government funding. Whether they’re stolen from a U.S. lab or produced overseas: take your pick. They won’t come from the hackerspace down the street. Read more…
Ignore the hype. Learn to be a data skeptic.
Yawn. Yet another article trashing “big data,” this time an op-ed in the Times. This one is better than most, and ends with the truism that data isn’t a silver bullet. It certainly isn’t.
I’ll spare you all the links (most of which are much less insightful than the Times piece), but the backlash against “big data” is clearly in full swing. I wrote about this more than a year ago, in my piece on data skepticism: data is heading into the trough of a hype curve, driven by overly aggressive marketing, promises that can’t be kept, and spurious claims that, if you have enough data, correlation is as good as causation. It isn’t; it never was; it never will be. The paradox of data is that the more data you have, the more spurious correlations will show up. Good data scientists understand that. Poor ones don’t.
It’s very easy to say that “big data is dead” while you’re using Google Maps to navigate downtown Boston. It’s easy to say that “big data is dead” while Google Now or Siri is telling you that you need to leave 20 minutes early for an appointment because of traffic. And it’s easy to say that “big data is dead” while you’re using Google, or Bing, or DuckDuckGo to find material to help you write an article claiming that big data is dead. Read more…
Current wearable computing technology is just scratching the surface — the really interesting tech has yet to be invented.
In an interview at SXSW, Google’s Sundar Pichai said something about wearables that I’ve been waiting to hear. Wearables aren’t about Google Glass; they aren’t about smart watches; they’re much, much more, and these technologies are only scratching the surface.
I’ve tweaked Apple a couple of times for their inability to deliver a watch, despite years of leaks and rumors. I suspect that products from competitors have forced them to pivot a few times, rethinking and delaying their product. But the bottom line is that I don’t care; I don’t wear a watch, haven’t for a long time, and I’m not about to start. Just not interested.
I’m more interested in Glass, but I’ve been amazed at how few people are listening to what Google has said about it: it’s an experiment. It’s not the endpoint, not the product. Given the excitement it has produced, Google would be foolish not to sell it. But really: it’s ugly, it’s a prototype, it’s a mockup. Five years from now, will we all be walking around with Google Glass hanging from designer frames? I doubt it. And I bet Pichai, Brin, and Page doubt it, too. It’s an experiment; it will show us what’s interesting, and point toward what to build next. It’s not the end result. Read more…
Disaffected grad students and postdocs increasingly turn to DIYbio to do work that makes a difference.
When we started BioCoder, we assumed that we were addressing the DIYbio community: interested amateur hobbyists and experimenters without much formal background in biology, who were learning and working in independent hackerspaces.
A couple of conversations have made me question that assumption — not that DIYbio exists; it’s clearly a healthy and growing movement, with new labs and hackerspaces starting in most major cities. But there’s another group mixed in with the amateurs, with a distinctly different set of capabilities and goals. DIYbio doesn’t mean exactly what we thought it did.
That group is what I broadly call “disaffected grad students and postdocs.” They’ve got training, loads of it. But they’ve spent the last few years working in a laboratory under a faculty member, furthering that faculty member’s agenda. They have their own ideas and their own research projects, but they can’t work on them within the context of academic biology. They’re funded by a grant, and the grant will only pay for certain things. And, as Anthony Di Franco points out in “Superseding Institutions in Science and Medicine” (in the current issue of BioCoder), grants are primarily given to people who already know what they’re going to find, and that is not how you get truly innovative and creative research. Read more…
Why the dearth of imagination — we need to get beyond different flavors of spyware.
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” as Jeff Hammerbacher said. And it’s not just data analysts: it’s creeping into every aspect of technology, including hardware.
One of the more exciting developments of the past year is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Unfortunately, the application that I’ve seen discussed most frequently is user tracking: devices in stores can use the BLE device in your cell phone to tell exactly where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, and target ads, offer you deals, send over salespeople, and so on.
Color me uninterested. I don’t really care about the spyware: if Needless Markup wants to know what I’m looking at, they can send someone out on the floor to look. But I am dismayed by the lack of imagination around what we can do with BLE. Read more…
Christina Agapakis discusses the intersection of art and science in the new edition of BioCoder.
We’ve published the second issue of BioCoder! In this interview excerpt from the new edition, Christina Agapakis talks with Katherine Liu about the intersection of art and science, and the changes in how we think about biotechnology. It’s one of many reasons we’re excited about this new issue. Download it, read it, and join the biotechnology revolution!
Katherine Liu: What can art and design teach us about biology and synthetic biology?
Christina Agapakis: That’s a great question. There are two different ways you can think about it: first as a way to reach different groups of people and have a different kind of conversation or debate around biotechnology. The second way that you could think about it is more interesting to me as a scientist because I think using art and design helps us ask different questions and think about problems and technological solutions in different ways. To make a good technology, we need to be aware of both the biological and the cultural issues involved, and I think the intersection of art and design with science and technology helps us see those connections better.
It isn't to produce a nation of coders.
Why do we want everyone to learn to code? It’s certainly not to produce a nation of coders. I have no delusions about everyone learning to code: it’s not going to happen, and may not even be desirable.
But the underlying rationale behind a slogan isn’t the slogan itself; it’s what the slogan enables. I’m not terribly interested in whether or not ex-Mayor Bloomberg learns Python. I hope that helps him in his new career, but I suspect he’ll do just fine, regardless of his programming skills. I am much more interested in the excitement behind organizations like Black Girls Code, excitement that derives directly from the “everyone should code” meme. Read more…
Valve might be positioned to do to Macintosh hardware what the Mac did to the PC market over a decade ago.
A scenario started playing through my head the other day. In the late 1990s, Apple looked dead. Then they released OS X, plus very cool shiny hardware. That put Apple back in the game and gave them the life they needed to bring about the iPod, etc. Apple’s revival didn’t come from iPods and iPhones; it came because they made a deep connection to the software developers. In 2000, if you went to a developer conference, everyone was carrying some kind of PC laptop, probably running some version of Windows, possibly Linux. But almost overnight that changed, and it changed completely. By 2003, any self-respecting developer was carrying a MacBook, preferably the one the size of a small aircraft carrier. Apple did an undeniably brilliant job of growing this beachhead among the developer community into a dominant brand. Everyone wanted what the cool kids had. Apple had a winning product: they had the most beautiful version of Unix ever, with a user interface that beat anything that had ever appeared on Linux or Windows.
But now, Apple is looking more and more hostile to the developer community that enabled their revival. OS X is evolving into a slightly more capable version of iOS, and we’re all dreading the day when the only way we can compile and install our own software is by using Apple’s proprietary tools and going through the App Store. If you look closely at Apple’s work, it’s clear where they’re putting the effort: there’s a race condition in basic text editing (TextEdit, Mail, etc.) that’s been around since at least OS X 10.6, and I suspect goes all the way back to 10.1. It’s not something arcane that only crops up in strange circumstances; I run into it every day (and on several different machines). And that’s only the start.
I know loads of developers who are saying, “yeah, I’m assuming I’ll be off Apple in a few years.” But that’s a problem: it’s one thing to talk about leaving Apple; it’s something completely different to know where you’re going. Read more…
Local retail revival won't hinge on online-style consumer data intrusion; it will require getting back to basics.
About a month ago, IBM published its five tech predictions for the next few years. They’re mostly the sort of unexceptional things one predicts in this sort of article — except for one: the return of local retail.
This is a fascinating idea, both in the ways I agree and the ways I disagree. First, I don’t think local retail is quite as dead as many people thought. Now that Borders is no longer with us and Barnes and Noble is on the ropes, I see more activity in local bookstores. And the shopping district in the center of my town is full; granted, we’re talking reasonably prosperous suburbia, not Detroit, but not too many years ago there was no shortage of empty storefronts.
What surprised me was the reason IBM thought local retail would return. They observed that many of the same techniques that Amazon and other online retailers use can be applied locally. You walk into a store; you’re identified by your cell phone (or some other device); the store can look up your purchase history, online history, etc.; it can then generate purchase recommendations based on inventory; and send over a salesperson — with an informed view of who you are, what you’re likely to buy, and so on — to “help” you. Read more…
As robots integrate more and more into our lives, they'll simply become part of normal, everyday reality — like dishwashers.
(Note: this post first appeared on Forbes; this lightly edited version is re-posted here with permission.)
We’ve watched the rising interest in robotics for the past few years. It may have started with the birth of FIRST Robotics competitions, continued with the iRobot and the Roomba, and more recently with Google’s driverless cars. But in the last few weeks, there has been a big change. Suddenly, everybody’s talking about robots and robotics.
It might have been Jeff Bezos’ remark about using autonomous drones to deliver products by air. It’s a cool idea, though I think it’s farfetched, but that’s another story. Amazon Prime isn’t Amazon’s first venture into robotics: a year and a half ago, they bought Kiva Systems, which builds robots that Amazon uses in their massive warehouses. (Personally, I think package delivery by drone is unlikely for many, many reasons, but that’s another story, and certainly no reason for Amazon not to play with delivery in their labs.)
But what really lit the fire was Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a DARPA contractor that makes some of the most impressive mobile robots anywhere. It’s hard to watch their videos without falling in love with what their robots can do. Or becoming very scared. Or both. And, of course, Boston Dynamics isn’t a one-time buy. It’s the most recent in a series of eight robotics acquisitions, and I’d bet that it’s not the last in the series. Read more…