Computational Biology is a Two-Way Street

Journalists in the mainstream media have talked about the Information Age for some time now. Most computer users don’t stop to consider just how much information they process in a day. Some concerned citizens have railed against information overload. On the other hand, computational biologists are changing the way that scientists fundamentally work with data.

Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body once represented the sum of all biological knowledge. The 1918 version provided over 13,000 different entries. Medical students often work with similar textbooks. However, information on genetics has essentially reduced the entire human organism to compiled code.

Computational biologists often have more of a background in computer science than in biology. While both disciplines are of vital importance in the field, computer programming might very well trump medical training in some respects. This illustrates just how complex machinery has gotten.

Humans might be looked at as a class of organic machines, but they have little in common with networked UNIX workstations. Information systems management disciplines aren’t completely integrated with every scientific field. The benefits of computer management are obvious.

What might not be obvious is the influence that computers might have on researchers. Published work is now largely held by large public databases. Scientists might very well be moving towards a future where interactions with databases could be on a far more intimate level.

3-D Virtual Communication in Our Lives

Virtual presence is the closest technology to teleportation that exists thus far. In fact, it’s possible to make people feel like they’re somewhere else. Certain types of equipment can even allow workers to manipulate things at a remote site while causing them to “feel” that they’re actually there in person.

This raises the question of how to define reality. Virtual reality as an entertainment technology has few ethical questions. Unless a computer becomes a sentient being, a fantasy can be turned off. When objects are being manipulated in the real world however, people might lose their sense of being.

Marvin Minsky defined telepresence in 1980. Telepresence is the art of creating a sense of physical presence at a remote location. Multimedia devices and tactile interfaces can help to cement this illusion.

The Human Media Lab has come up with a unique way to create a 3D holographic videoconferencing system.

While full-blown holographic environments are a long way off, some current technology is actually coming close. For example, a group of researchers at the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University (Ontario) have created a life-sized hologram-like telepod using Microsoft’s Kinect system and a cylindrical display for live, 3D videoconferencing (shown on the right). They refer to the technology as “TeleHuman”: it allows two people to stand in front of their own separate pods and talk to 3D hologram images of one other.

Although 3D holographic video is certainly not a new technology (consider the recent and much-hyped holographic performance of deceased rapper 2Pac at the Coachella music festival), what makes Human Media Lab’s technology unique is the fact that it was created using a video system and some off-the-shelf components. This means this that connecting with others this way could become commonplace within a short period of time. Sweet!

Virtual Presence Moving Forward
Some commonly explored aspects of science fiction might create serious problems in the very near future. Many stories have focused on people wishing to marry machinery for example. Devices that become too much like humans might start to act like them. By cultivating a realistic virtual presence, people might spend their entire lives with a family unit that’s nowhere nearby. Internet dating has already significantly changed the way that people look for interpersonal relationships as well.

Virtual presence might very well be the next step in social networking and personal communications in our lives.

bodipod_crc (PDF Download)

Is ‘Mind Hacking’ a Threat of the Future?

Often when I write/speak about synthetic biology or the future merging of humans and technology at the biologic level, one of the primary concerns expressed by others involves the possibility of virus corruption. The fear of hackers that engineer viruses or bacteria to control humans may be a valid concern. What do you think? Is mind hacking a real threat to humans down the road once we’re “plugged in”?

A Look Back at the Alabama Virus 

Computer viruses are never a positive thing. They’re malicious, and there has been a great deal of debate over them. However, the Alabama virus can be used as an interesting thought experiment. Considering that it infected computers in October 1989, using it as a point of reference is probably innocuous.

In its day, the Alabama virus infected executable DOS files. It was loaded up into memory when a user executed an infected program. Infected programs grew by 1,560 bytes. Each Friday, the virus started to mess with the file allocation tables in order to insure that infected files were run preferentially over uninfected ones. This process was dangerous, and caused people to loose files.

Interestingly enough, it had an anti-piracy message. After staying in memory for an hour, the virus would tell the user that software copies were forbidden under international law. It then displayed a PO box address located in Tuscambia, Alabama. Tuscambia actually doesn’t exist. Since the virus was probably developed in Israel, the author may have confused the spelling of Tuscumbia.

Additional infections were carried out by carefully inspecting the directory to note which files were clean. The virus attacked the program being run if there were no further files to infect. Considering this selective nature, the virus program almost seemed like a living thing. It was apparently supposed to impart a moral lesson and act on behalf of its creator. In that respect, it almost seems like the living arm of the individual who programmed it.

While it would certainly be foolish to call it a completely independently acting piece of artificial intelligence, the Alabama virus does have some aspects that make it resemble a living thing. It also may represent the dangers of letting computers act in a totally autonomous fashion.

So do we need to worry about viruses/hacking used to control robots and/or humans in the future? What are your thoughts?


Advances in Quantum Computing

Quantum physics promises faster and more powerful computers, but quantum versions of basic logic functions are still needed to bring this technology to fruition. Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Toshiba Research Europe Ltd. have taken one step toward this goal by creating an all-semiconductor quantum logic gate, a controlled-NOT (CNOT) gate. They achieved this breakthrough by coaxing nanodots to emit single photons of light on demand. Read More →

The Future of Personal Computing [Predictions]

Computing is evolving at an exponential rate, changing the world as it progresses. The first personal computers only appeared in the early 1980s, and the first Internet-enabled mobiles appeared in 1996. Now, the mobile internet is set to dominate the computer world (and the internet itself) for the foreseeable future. Nobody knows exactly how it will evolve, but these predictions may provide a realistic vision of the next 20 years. Let me know if you agree/disagree with my predictions. Read More →

Chips as Mini Internets

 The data-routing techniques that undergird the Internet could increase the efficiency of multicore chips while lowering their power requirements.

Today, a typical chip might have six or eight cores, all communicating with each other over a single bundle of wires, called a bus. With a bus, however, only one pair of cores can talk at a time, which would be a serious limitation in chips with hundreds or even thousands of cores, which many electrical engineers envision as the future of computing. Read More →

Opening the Gate to Robust Quantum Computing

Scientists have overcome a major hurdle facing quantum computing: how to protect quantum information from degradation by the environment while simultaneously performing computation in a solid-state quantum system. The research was reported in the April 5 issue of Nature (referenced below).

A group led by U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory physicist Viatsheslav Dobrovitski and including scientists at Delft University of Technology; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and University of Southern California, made this big step forward on the path to using the motions of single electrons and nuclei for quantum information processing. The discovery opens the door to robust quantum computation with solid-state devices and using quantum technologies for magnetic measurements with single-atom precision at nanoscale. Read More →