The grand interconnection

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 October, 2017
Editorial: 143
Fecha de publicación original: 24 noviembre, 1998

Year of disease, good year for doctors

This morning, after taking his usual anti-cholesterol pill, Mr. John Smith suddenly didn’t feel too good. So, he took his DNA card out of his wallet, spat on it, spread the fluid over its plastic surface, inserted it into the slot of his pocket computer and connected to the Internet via his cellphone. Three minutes later he got a call from his doctor, “Mr. Smith, stay put, we’re on our way to pick you up. Don’t worry, you’re about to go into a hypoglycaemic coma but we’ll get there on time”. Mr. Smith put his DNA card away and looked up and down the street anxiously as he waited for the ambulance to arrive. Fact or fiction? Both things. The card doesn’t exist yet, but the DNA chip printed on it does. A chip made of biological material, capable of analysing thousands of genes at once and detecting those that are not working properly according to the manual. The Net is beginning to weave a new information dimension and its nodes lie in the genetic code.

Science and technology have been the fundamental springboards for the development of telecommunications networks, sometimes because these were the target of their research, sometimes because scientific research advanced closely linked to the development of the networks themselves. The most notable case of the former was the Strategic Defence Initiative(SDI) launched by Ronald Reagan in the 80’s to prevent Soviet missiles reaching American soil. The space shield, also called Star Wars, encompassed everything from detecting the launch of enemy ballistic rockets, to tracing their trajectory, distinguishing decoys from real ones, preparing stratospheric weapons (from laser rays and electromagnetic pulse transmitters mounted on satellites, to more conventional devices), deciding the point of intersection and launching the counter-attack in order to destroy each and every one of the nuclear missiles in the upper atmosphere. All this had to be done in seven minutes, the time needed from the beginning of the attack to the moment nuclear heads were pulverized in space, before it was too late.

In other words, this meant giving computers a very high decision-making capability during these critical moments. In order for these machines to make decisions it was fundamental that their network interconnections reached critical operational and density levels. Thousands of millions of dollars were spent on it, but neither occurred. Well, not as far as the Star Wars programme was concerned, because in the meantime, amongst other things and as a consequence of them, the USSR collapsed. But, ArpaNet, as well as thousands of other networks built in its likeness, particularly those related to command and control of armaments and satellites, received the full force of the shock waves coming off the scientific and technological efforts of the SDI. The Internet is, to a large extent, the direct heir of the advances of that time both in its design, diffusion and operation.

An example of the second –of “net-dependent” scientific research– is the human genome project. The extraordinary advances made in the genetic mapping of living beings, in particular the human genome, can be put down largely to the support of telematic networks, to the point where both –research and networks — begin to fuse together. This encounter was written into, forgive me, the genetic code of molecular biology and telecommunications engineering itself: both aim at transmitting bits of information, complex messages, through networks.
For some time, the physical side of these networks has predominated. All the research on our genetic make-up and gene sequencing is now stored on the Internet – or similar networks – and scientists can consult them all over the world. But, little by little, the relationship between the physical and biological networks have been preparing the ground for a coming together more suited to their respective characteristics: the genetic code itself. To put it into the appropriate language, Star Wars –the development of complex physical networks– is beginning to be “expressed” in the genome –the development of complex biological networks–. The meeting point is a chip whose microscopic circuits and switches are not imprinted on the traditional silica, but on the nucleotides which make up the four “bases” of the genetic code: adenine, cytosine, gaunine and thymine. The DNA chip, as it is called, was designed, just as one would have expected, by Silicon Valley engineers along with biologists from various research centres in the US.

Its capacity for gene analysis is still “limited”. It can only just manage information of some 2,050 genes per chip, in other words, four are needed to study virtually all the yeast genome (6.200 genes). Multiplying its potential is, nevertheless, literally a question of days. Apart from its capacity for processing “in situ”, engineers and biologists are working on the possibility of interconnecting DNA chips to biological and physical networks, those of the human body, on the one hand, and of computers on the other.

In fact, the human genome is only one of the possible strategies of these new networks. Its objective is, to start off with, all living creatures the management of whose genetic inheritance is somehow interesting. The DNA chips could be designed to decipher any genetic coding, everything would depend on the material which its circuits and switches would be made up of. And, the information they provide could attain an accuracy which was unimaginable just one year ago, from determining which genes are active and which are dormant, to the modifications they undergo during the life cycle of the organism.

So, the day we include (by obligation?) something more than just the usual “I like cats and jazz, especially Mishy and Winton Marsalis” in our web pages, is not that far away. Part of the information about our genetic sequencing would be included for rapid reading and transmission of data in case of a “crisis”. What crisis? That’s a good question. Over the last years I have taken part in various congresses and seminars on the human genome. The most representative figures in the sector were always present, from James Watson or Francis Crick, Nobel Prize winners for the discovery of DNA, to those involved in managing the Human Genome Project. On each occasion, every one of them publicly assured us that we would never do what only a few months later they were already doing. I suspect that nobody, and much less so we the ordinary Internet users, has sufficient imagination to say anything even remotely intelligent about the extent of the fusion between physical networks and the biological ones, about our growing capacity for penetrating through them to the basic elements that make up our Universe and life on earth. The only thing we know for sure is that we are heading in that direction, towards that moment of greater integration, and at a much more rapid rate than we ever imagined.

Translation: Bridget King.