The genetic programming future

I used to to write short stories for awhile after college, and big surprise, they were all of the "science fiction" variety. In one of them, I opened with a bearded man on the cover of Time magazine sitting next to a rubber plant (written before I even knew who Richard Stallman was), the leaves of which had "Hello, World" printed on their surface.

I used to to write short stories for awhile after college, and big surprise, they were all of the "science fiction" variety. In one of them, I opened with a bearded man on the cover of Time magazine sitting next to a rubber plant (written before I even knew who Richard Stallman was), the leaves of which had "Hello, World" printed on their surface. The idea was that the featured genetic software revolutionary had just released the building blocks of a programming model that would enable everyone to design their own organisms as easily as they do computer user interfaces. The technology was subsequently banned by the government, and the rest of the story discussed the fallout of the new technology now that it was "out of the bag."

The software part of the story seems to be playing out today, at least according to the cover story in Newsweek. It's too early to say how governments will respond.

Treating the details of DNA as a software problem makes a lot of sense. DNA is simply a more compact format in which to store digital information. Instead of the binary format used to encode current computer programs (the 1s and 0s of a program on disk, which represent the on or off state of a logic gate), biological systems allow 4 states, one for each of the four bases used in strands of DNA - adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).

We have some time before a customized rubber plant appears on the cover of Time, but the concept implied by my story is still true. Once someone creates the genetic equivalent of a "Hello, World" program, demonstrating just how simple it is to create such creatures, genetic programming will have come into its own.

There are risks to such technology, to be sure. The ability to design custom organisms using some future programming langauge is pretty powerful, continuing a technology trend of handing ever more powerful technology into ordinary people's hands. This, to my mind, places a certain urgency in solving some of our more intractable inter-cultural problems, and means we need to stop pretending that we can ever hide behind nation-state borders. Sorry, Ron Paul.

But, on the other hand, we have yet more proof that programming skills will remain relevant for the foreseeable future, and will extend into areas that none of us ever imagined. It's still good to be a programmer.

Hope my American readers had a nice Memorial Day weekend. I spent mine in typical American fashion - eating mass quantities of barbecued meat.