Silicon Insider: The Unreported Revolution

What was the biggest press failure in recent history?

The boosterism of the national media in the dot-com bubble? Close. The New York Times /Jayson Blair debacle? Closer.The obvious bias of the Los Angeles Times in the California Recall? Almost.

No, in the eyes of history, the biggest media disaster of our time is one of omission: the manifest, across-the-board failure of the press to educate itself and the general public on the progress and implications of the biotechnology revolution.

This is a revolution that will transform our lives in ways we can't even imagine. It will likely redefine what it means to be human, and to be alive or dead. It will rewrite the meaning of beauty, health and intelligence, of parenthood, and even of self. And, more than any single event in recorded history, it will change the very direction and fate of the species. There is no bigger story than this — and it is not being covered.

This is professional negligence and malpractice of the highest order. A failure so complete that the press feels no guilt about it, and the public doesn't even understand it is being ill-served.

The assumption seems to be that if anything important happens in biotech, we'll hear about it. But will we? And even if we do — what if it is too late to do anything about it? Are we really willing to leave the big moral questions to industry insiders? Is this really the position we want to be in vis-à-vis the most important story of our time?

Revolution in Gene Chips

What got me thinking about this was a brief new product announcement made recently by Affymetrix for a new gene chip, the Human Plus Array. Have you ever heard of Affymetrix? Do you know what a gene chip is?

No? Then let me explain, based upon my own limited knowledge. A gene chip is a small glass chip containing an internal matrix similar to that found in integrated circuits about twenty years ago (in fact, some of these chips have been fabricated using old semiconductor equipment). Into this matrix, biotech companies such as Affymetrix, Agilent and Applied Biosystems, all of Silicon Valley, insert fragments of the 35,000 known human genes.

In practice, doctors and researchers can inject these chips with a blood sample or other fluid and then 'read' how different parts of the genome react to that sample. In theory, this will lead to the development of drugs and even genetic therapies custom-designed for each patient. It is also the first step in the long march to true bio-silicon interfaces — such as memory chips for the brain.

The Affymetrix announcement represents a milestone, in that for the first time all of 35,000 genes have been stuffed onto a single chip — effectively cutting in half the price for the industry standard two-chip set to about $300-$500 per chip.

Both Agilent and Applied Biosystems have responded to the announcement by noting that their two-chip sets contain longer fragments than those found on the Human Plus Array, and thus, they claim, are more sensitive and offer better performance. Meanwhile, you can be sure they are rushing out their own one chip solutions.

The Biotech Train Is Roaring

Have you heard this kind of competitive trash talk before? Sure, it's the voice of the digital world, from software to PCs to servers. What you're hearing is the sound of Moore's Law in action. And you know what that means.

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.

By the same token, today we can confidently predict that the next great step — mapping the functions of all proteins created by human DNA — will be completed within a generation. But it is beyond our ken to imagine what the world will be like when we eradicate all 3,000 genetic diseases and, in the process, learn to control every aspect of what it means to be human.

All that we can say with any confidence is that now that it has jumped aboard Moore's Law, the biotech revolution will make the electronics revolution look like a footnote. And that should give us pause.

We are about to face the greatest challenge any human generation has ever known. Shouldn't we be preparing for it? Shouldn't the arbiters of information in our society be informing us, educating us, WARNING us?

Why have they let us down?

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.