by Marc Goodman and Andrew Hessel
There have always been hackers. If we look back 30 years to the earliest days of the personal computer, the first iteration were DIY types with cobbled-together devices, tinkering in garages and basements and meeting periodically to share their stories. Their intentions were mostly non-malicious: they hacked for fun and to learn what was possible. From these dabblers came the first generation of technology entrepreneurs, such as Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates
But, as computing grew into a global and highly profita- ble industry, hacker numbers swelled and a darker side to the culture emerged. In the early days of criminal hacking it was about showing what was possi- ble – breaking into systems for fun and the challenge. Later, a profit motive emerged, which attracted criminal elements that were serious, organised and global. As a result, the US now classifies cyberspace as a new domain of battle – as sig- nificant as air, land or sea – and has new agencies to secure it.
But there’s another domain of battle coming in the near future, one that is as real, yet as intangible, as cyberspace. It is likely to become the most com- plex yet: it’s easy to hack and hard to defend because there’s no way to live without it. It is the domain of biology.
A living cell is analogous to a computer, albeit a very sophisticated one, made of carbon rather than silicon. At its heart is an operating system. It’s written in DNA nucleotides – chemical bits denoted in the less familiar As, Ts, Cs and Gs of DNA code – but, fundamentally, not so dierent from the zeroes and ones of electronic software.
Seen this way, cells are self-assembling, non-toxic, self-repairing, low- energy, infinitely scalable and adaptive computing devices. Moreover, even though life has evolved over billions of years and digital computers have been engineered for just a few decades, their fundamental architectures aren’t all that dierent. Cells are hardware and DNA is software. The result? Biology, like other forms of computing, can be hacked.
And it is being hacked, every day.
Mapped on to computing’s timeline, biological hacking is still in its early stages: roughly, we’re in 1979. DNA hackers are still innocent, even playful. But this innocence is unlikely to last long: computing advances at the pace of Moore’s law, in which processing power doubles or its price halves every two years, whereas genomics is charging ahead at least five times faster. The first human genome, which was completed in 2000, cost about £2 billion; now sequencing costs less than £2,500. And this is just the beginning – a human genome could, in theory, cost less than a pound by the end of the decade. No other technology has fallen in price so quickly.
Over the last 20 years, tens of billions of pounds have flooded into molecular biology and genetics industries. This has led to new technologies for reading DNA. Every day, new genomes are uploaded into health- science databases, and the pace is rapidly increasing. All this data has produced an army of bioinformatics scientists, whose job is to organise all this code and figure out what it does.
But reading DNA is only the beginning: science has evolved to the point where human beings can write DNA code as well. As a result, thousands of scientists, known as genetic engineers, are programming living things directly. Genetic engineering used to be very hard and very expensive. Not any more. In fact, advanced genetic engineering can now be done with a just a few weeks of training, a laptop and a credit card.
This means that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in biotechnology: faster, cheaper and more powerful biotechnologies. On the positive side, this opens the door to scientific breakthroughs in biological under- standing, diagnostics and new treatments. As we learn to code in biology, radical new possibilities arise, including abundant biofuels, better medicines and life extension. It also means that we could be approaching a new era of biological hacking, biological attack and even biological warfare. And the best place to look for how these scenarios – some of them terrifying – will play out is our experience of cyberspace.
The full article is available on Wired.co.uk.