Re: Why To Go Into Bioinformatics
Posted: Apr 21, 2003 3:38 PM
Oh man, what a nightmare. I just finished typing out a (probably way too long) response to this, hit "preview", and of course my computer choose that moment to completely lock up. Right now I think I'd be fine if computers (this one in particular) just sailed off into the sunset :). I'll try to recreate the essence of what I said the first time.
I'm looking forward to reading your explanations. I'm not trying to talk you out of anything, just saw the opportunity for an interesting discussion :).
Before getting into your points, I wanted to say that to some extent I think we may just be arguing semantics here. My main problem was with the implication (and perhaps that implication is just in my mind) that future advances in biotechnology will be so great as to dwarf everything else that has been (or will be) achieved either directly by computer technology, or because of using computer tools. So I'm probably just reading the "the computer revolution will become a footnote" line more strongly than was intended.
And thanks for the book reference, I'll try to check it out.
...I think that computers have, to date, only allowed us to do VERY QUICKLY what we can accurately and completely describe.
I have a problem with that statement. Taken at face value, I guess I would agree with it in the very narrow sense that a computer will only work if you tell it exactly what to do. However, I see the implication (again with the caveat that I might be reading too much into it) that given enough time, we could have achieved everything we've done so far with computers without them. That implication I would strongly disagree with (even putting aside the (very real and important) fact that computers allow us to do things so much more quickly than "by hand" that almost every non-trivial application of computers would be literally impossible without them). There are several applications of computers where the real benefit comes from the emergent properties of the system. (I'm probably using the term "emergent properties" in a technically incorrect way here, but its a term I like, and I think it makes sense here). For example, the "accurate and complete description" of how the Internet works at its fundamental levels is relatively simple. However, when you wire the whole thing up, what emerges is nothing short of amazing. The modern Internet, especially the World Wide Web certainly goes far beyond the expectations of the people who originally put the thing into motion.
For most applications of computers I think the view of "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is much more useful than "you can only get out what you put in".
Computers have not changed us as organisms. Even the hard-AI crowd has backed off of predicting the day "real soon now" when we'll achieve immortality by downloading ourselves into a computer.
This is not at all the argument I was making. I haven't been convinced that such as thing is possible (though I am probably closer to believing it than the average person). And even if it were possible, I don't know that all that many people would jump at the chance. A book reference for you, Permutation City, I think the author is Greg Evans (?). It's science fiction, but it's thought provoking, and a fun read.
We don't think much about steam engines or cotton gins anymore, even though both are absolutely essential to the functioning of our modern society.
Very true. However, I would put computers more on the level of the Industrial Revolution than any specific invention such as the steam engine or cotton gin. Computer technology has much more fundamental and wide reaching applications than either of those inventions.
There was a time when everyone who owned a car knew how to work on it -- or had access to someone who knew how. To me, that sounds a lot like computers today. Now, though, only specialists work on cars while the rest of us just count on them to function. And if they don't, we take them to the shop and rent another until ours is fixed.
I also agree with this. Actually I would characterize the current situation with computers as much closer to the current situation with cars than you have. "Everyone" uses a computers on a daily basis, but practically nobody knows how they work. But does the fact that nobody knows how a car (or a computer) works make them any less important to our daily lives?
Computers will be like air -- always there, always instantly available, and, of course, deadly when they malfunction -- which, also of course, they almost never will. What they certainly won't be, however, is the stuff of revolutions. That time will be past.
Yes, the trend is certainly toward computers everywhere. The average computer user will become less and less aware of what the computer is doing, or even of the idea that there is something called a "computer" there doing anything at all. Again, we're already there in many respects. If you ask the average person what a computer is, they'll point to the box on their desk. They almost certainly won't point to their microwave, maybe not even their cell phone, some might not even recognize their PDA as a computer. But does the pervasiveness of computers to the point that we don't think about them make them less important? I would argue that it makes them vastly more important (and more usable, two aspects which are intertwined).
Once we can hack genes (or even better, proteins), hacking computers is going to seem a touch passe.
I'm not sure I see what you're driving at here. I'll go back to my argument that computers are so useful in so many areas of science and engineering that no single application (such as biotechnology) can be considered vastly more "important" than any other. The advances we have already made, and will make in the future are just as jaw dropping in any other area.
Also, the idea of "once we can hack genes"...what do you have in mind? Genetic manipulation has been a fact for centuries, breeding better crops, manipulating the genetics of animals such as horses and dogs through selective breeding. What is really changing aside from the methods used? We may be on the cusp of being able to do many of these things more directly, and possibly more efficiently, but how much benefit do we really expect to see? The natural processes of evolution are extremely powerful. We have harnessed them by using selective breeding of plants and animals in the past to great effect. Recent advances in genetically modified crops have been a great success, but is this leaps and bounds past what has already been done with just selective breeding? Perhaps, and if not, we'll probably get there in the near future.
But again, why should this relegate the "computer revolution" to the appendix of the history books?