It was just three years ago, at an industry conference in San Francisco, that a venture capitalist noted that for the very first time, biotech — in particular, the field of bioinformatics — was beginning to exhibit the kind of technological acceleration until now only found in electronics. And now, when almost no one is looking, here we are: the biotech train is starting to roar down the tracks.
Moore's Law, as I've written many times, is a powerful, magnificent, and often dangerous force. It creates extraordinary opportunities, and creates enormous change. Millions of lives in the world today are far better off because of what Moore's Law did through the digital revolution.
But Moore's Law can be dangerous too. Its exponential growth is all-but beyond the capacity of human beings to cope with. For example, it will take generations for us to fully assimilate just what happened in the PC Age from 1984 to 1998. The change Moore's Law produces is so fast, and so sweeping, that it quickly escapes any attempt to control it. Just look at the Internet.
Ultimately, the greatest lesson to be learned from the electronics revolution is that if you hope to have any impact on Moore's Law you'd better do it early, in the first few generations, before the doubling grains of rice on the chessboard mount up so high that they engulf you. After that, it takes everything you've got just to keep from being buried alive.
That brings us back to the biotech revolution and the Affymetrix announcement. The very existence of the Human Plus Array is evidence that not only is the acceleration underway, but that it is already well along. In other words, we are already running out of time to have any say in this next, far more profound (and intimate) revolution. Very soon now, we will be reduced to merely reacting to each new biotech generation as they crash over us, to the metronome of Moore's Law, every couple of years.
Why Word Isn't Getting Out
How can this be? Why didn't you hear about it? Because biotech is complicated stuff (though, frankly, not necessarily any more complicated than the silicon gates and Boolean algebra of the digital world).
When reporters hear terms like "recombinant DNA" they have a tendency to run in the other direction. Or, if forced, to try to turn the narrative into the standard "medical miracle" feature story. I found the Affymetrix story in the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle, the company's hometown paper. How many other papers carried the story, much less an analysis of its implications?
And television is even worse than print, mostly because biotech is too complicated for one-liners and too goopy for a visual medium. So, once again, the biotech story is tarted up as a medical story — The Next Big Panacea — and the larger story is once again lost. And, as tech taught us, when you only cover applications you're already too late. As near as I can tell, the only full-time biotech television reporter in the world today is Marc Levenson of Tech TV. Bless him, because it must be a lonely job.
A second truth about Moore's Law is that, ironically, even as it presents a very accurate tool for predicting the future of a given technology, it obscures the larger social and cultural implications of that change. In 1972 you could have predicted today's Pentium and Athlon chips, but not e-commerce or music downloads or cyberterrorism.