On Biotechnology

What I love about Biotech, is it’s very much like software although frustratingly so, it’s not treated as such.

Biotechnology is the most fascinating industry, a medium ripe for innovation. If I could easily get into Biotech and Neuroprosthetics, I would do nothing else, it would be my dream. In fact, I tried. I want this post to be about the future, but I feel I must briefly touch on how disappointed I am with the field.

Biotech field is disproportionately riddled with patents, heavy regulation, fear, uncertainty and doubt - furthering monopolistic holds and suffocating independent endeavours.

The main argument is of “bioterror”, which while I understand the point of view, this arguments voice is disproportionate to the reality, and to create any kind of super virus is most likely to be a well funded, team effort with state funding. The incentives don’t work in favour of the corporation or your garden variety indie mad-scientist. Remember, you’re more likely to die from rogue vending machines than you are from any terror attack, not to mention these terrorist organisations are the result of State actions in the first place. I understand that it’s unlikely to change without some more fundamental changes.

Anyway, thinking deeply about Virtual/Augmented Reality led me to thinking about directly interfacing with the brain, current methods are crude and damaging to the cells, there has to be a way we can stimulate (and record) neural activity in an non-invasive way. The holy grail of this would be independently addressable neurons, but as far as I found, optogenetics and graphene sensors seem to show some promise. Hooking into the brain directly is going to be invasive, but there has been alot of interesting work around the idea of Sensory Substitution.

Sensory Substitution was discovered in the late 1960s by Paul Bach-y-Rita, which allowed blind people to “see” by their sense of touch, reproducing images on their back. He pioneered alot of the work around neuroplasticity. Long story short, it seems our brain is capable of interpreting signals and turning them into direct sensory perceptions. In a very real way, we can create new senses. How about instead of overlaying a video screen over our visual sense, we create an entirely new sense organ for augmented reality?

So whats the catch? Well, it’s unidirectional for one and all current forms of sensory substitution involve electrically or mechanically stimulating the subject. You run into serious spatial and temporal problems with both, you end up getting adjacent points interacting when you attempt higher resolutions than simple 16x16 grids. Either that or you require the user to wear the device on their tongue… less than ideal.

During this time I was also studying molecular biology, an absolutely fascinating topic in of itself, this nano-machinery, collectively responsible for the formation of every living super-organism. My first real tangible grasp into Biotech and rough understanding how cells worked opens up completely new frontiers. The simplified analogy of software in the form of nucleotides, executing within the cell, and expanding up into larger organisms. The sheer multitude of possibilities is mind boggling. Information Technology will have to recognise and encompass “wetware”, else Biotech will surpass and dwarf anything we’ve seen in the silicon space.

In reading some paper’s I noticed that Lumpkin’s lab had managed to optogenetically stimulate Merkel cells in mice. These Merkel cells are one of the handful mechanoreceptors involved in touch.

Hmmm, interesting, now we have some cells in the “upper-most” layers of the skin that we could intentionally trigger, our spatial resolution would be limited only by the direction of our stimulating lightsource, and our temporal resolution limited to the recovery time of the cells.

The software comparison is so much similar that it was easy to design a “program” (virus) that would target and infect these cells and get them producting the optins. You can see my works here;

The idea would be to create a “tattoo” of skin that is blue-light sensitive that could then be used to retrain the brain to perceive a new sense.

My attempts to attain pre-engineered mice subjects(and they exist) and/or acquire the physical viral construction have been hampered every step of the way, probably with good intentions but what frustrates me is there is no atmosphere I’ve found to do these things in and no technical reason not to do so. It’s cheap to do!

Thus it has been revealed to me that problems are deeper within the foundations of society, change must happen at a deeper level. Both Order and Law are in question for me.