Biotechnology is bigger than the digital wave

By Eudore R.Chand

DUBAI 13 December 2018: Credited as the first to predict the impact of the digital age, Dr Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, describes biotechnology as the next big wave of innovation, similar to how digital was 30 years ago. Biotechnology is becoming the new digital and is set to govern the next decade of thought, the author of the 1995 best-seller Being Digital told a lecture hosted at the Majils Mohamed bin Zayed on Wednesday.

During the course of his lecture, titled Biotech is the New Digital, hosted at Al Bateen Palace in Abu Dhabi, Negroponte said he could foresee a future in which information and knowledge would be delivered to the brain via tiny robots in one’s bloodstream so that they can get very close to all the cells and nerves. The lecture was attended by H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region, as well as other dignitaries.

When Negroponte spoke at the inaugural TED event in 1984, he made five predictions – though he termed them extrapolations based on research being done at MIT – that more or less came true.

He was working off 15 years of research and forecast what he thought would happen in the field of digital technology. Negroponte’s extrapolations have generally been based on the pioneering work of the MIT Media Lab, which applies an unorthodox research approach to envision the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life, but recently he made a prediction which is more “in the prediction category”. But even this was based on the work of his media lab colleagues who are mapping the brain and studying how we interact with it.

The man who invented the touchscreen in the 1970s and “predicted” the most important technological revolutions of recent times says the best way to interact with the brain is from the inside, from the bloodstream. Negroponte said the media lab has been studying ways to send the brain concentrated doses of artificial intelligence through pills, looking to interact directly with the neurons, reaching the brain from within and not the eyes, which he feels “have become outdated instruments”. In theory, this will make it possible to ingest knowledge, be it of Shakespeare or of French, simply by swallowing a pill. This might sound unbelievable, he said, but “things that are difficult to imagine do happen”.

Through his 1995 best-seller Being Digital, Negroponte gave readers a glimpse into the world we now occupy, complete with wireless, touch screens, ebooks and personalised news. He also predicted that digital media would evolve to be part of our everyday lives. “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living,” he said at the time. In the same vein, it is biotech now which is starting to ring in the changes and will eventually help transform most things in the future.

Negroponte said biotechnology is already beginning to affect the way we live, with the use of living systems and organisms to develop products increasing dramatically in recent years. He believes that we have now reached a stage where the natural and the artificial have blended. In every field, we obsess on the distinction between synthetic and natural, but in a hundred years “there will be no difference between them,” he said.

The tech visionary said that when he was growing up, people built artificial things in the natural world – for example, cities were made up of man-made objects built in the natural world. “That difference is gone. Suddenly we are engineering not just to be informed by nature but to do better: we can design things better than nature.” As a case in point, Negroponte referred to Hugh Herr, who heads the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab and who delivered a lecture at the Majlis earlier this year. Herr is creating bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs, he said, adding that biotech is becoming the new digital much faster than most people think.

Negroponte said the media lab has been also experimenting with direct brain interaction, from the outside and the inside of the head, by way of devices that can read your mind.

The tech visionary, who believes that children are our most valuable natural resources, was the driving force behind the ambitious One Laptop per Child (OLPC) non-profit initiative, which sought to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves via computers.

Negroponte, who says he is old enough to have “been to the future many times”, says the future is about synthetic biology and the interface between biology and silicon. Technologies such as these are the future, even if that future is still decades away.

Dubai Gazette