CAMDEN, Maine With the convergence of computing and communications established, experts gathered here predicted the confluence of nanotechnology, biology, information technology and cognitive science that could usher in a new age of biotechnology.
Approximately 500 experts at the PoP!Tech conference here over the weekend (Oct. 17-19) explored the technological and bioethical implications of biotechnology. Chairman Andrew Zolli said the conference theme, "Sea Change," referred to what is known and is commonplace and how it can suddenly and profoundly shift to something entirely new.
Juan Enriquez, director of Harvard University Business School's Life Science Project, promised a tsunami wave. Enriquez proclaimed the 21st century as Biological Century. Indeed, biotechnology has surpassed IT as the leading source of U.S. patents. "You can get off the boat [ignore progress] or you can accept what is possible," he said, keeping in mind that "a society enamored by its culture does not change at its peril".
He predicted that in a few as six years all information on a single human could be stored on a single USB memory stick as a result of advances in continuing semiconductor miniaturization. Marrying silicon and DNA would present opportunities to manipulate humans for better or worse. "The Buddhist belief in reincarnation will take on an entirely new meaning," said Enriquez.
"We need to be able to ask the right questions," said Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at UCLA's School of Public Health. Stock is a board member with the American Journal of Bioethics. He has advised the Bush administration on the bio-ethical challenges in the next century.
"We are deciphering human biology and are taking charge of life," said Gregory, the author of "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future." "Life is moving from the substrate of carbon to another substrate that of silicon."
Stock said the next frontier is not space but human biology. He dismissed the anxiety generated by such new technologies as wet-wear, a combined silicon/carbon substrate, and claimed that people should ask the "proper" questions about how biotechnology is used.
Ex-Apple Computer chief John Sculley, now a partner at Sculley Brothers LLC, and a cofounder of the conference, added: "We took some wise fellow's insight 'You don't understand something until you understand it more than one way' and made that one of our principles," said Sculley.
Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, provided a progress report on nanotechnologies. "In military applications, nanotechnologies are being pursued to be able to control biological and chemical weapons," Peterson said.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, Peterson called for "a basic feasibility review in which molecular manufacturing's proponents and critics can present their technical cases to a group of unbiased physicists for analysis." She warned lawmakers that "nanotechnology research is already worldwide, and there is no guarantee that the U.S, an ally or other democracy will be the first to reach molecular manufacturing, and failure to do so would be militarily disastrous."
The $170 million budget request for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in fiscal 2005 includes $120 million are for exploring and developing technological breakthroughs "that exist at the intersection of biology, information technology and micro/physical sciences," according to the agency's budget request.
Still, bioethical questions were at the forefront during the conference. "Who is giving the green light to integrate living and nonliving materials at the atomic level?" asked Alan Goldstein, director of Biomedical Materials Engineering and Science at Alfred University (Alfred, N.Y.).