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Freeman Dyson – Biotech vs Nanotech Continues

Thanks to all of the folks who responded to my original critique concerning Dr. Feeman Dyson’s December’09 lecture in Portland, OR [Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech]  Perhaps the most engaging response was from Russ Baker, which I’ve posted below. 

But before reading my discussion with Russ, here’s a short clip from a Nov09 interview with Sci-Fi Editor-in-Chief Lou Anders that provides a slight twist to the comparison between generic and semiconductor engineering.

Interview with Lou Anders by John Blyler at Orycon'09 in Portland, ORWill end this century as one human race? Listen to what Lou has to say!   Lou Anders on Genetic Engineering

 

 

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Discussion with Russ about the Dr Dyson’s comparison between Biotech verses Nanotech (Feb 5, 2010)

Regarding your article and comments about Dr. Dyson’s statement on “computer domestication”, I respectfully submit that his statement was in fact intentional and accurate, and somewhat nuanced.  I think the point of using the term “domestication” is to imply “the taming of computers for the service of humanity”.  Viewing them as a commodity is primarily an economic judgment, implying access to all (and also a complete lack of differentiation and direct substitution – which doesn’t actually apply to computers.  Just ask Apple.).  But I think domestication was specifically chosen to imply that this complex technology has now been refined and packaged (i.e. “tamed”) to the point that the layman can use the tool in their own home without any real understanding of how or why it works – but simply to get a job done.  I also think you might be reflecting a lack of appreciation for the hundreds of years of R&D and testing that were involved in domesticating animals and plants.  One could probably argue that humanity’s animal/plant project was far more ambitious and costly relative to the resources and knowledge of the people doing it than the development of the computer.  It certainly took far longer, no doubt with many more mistakes and dead-ends.

I also think his use of “domestication” differs from yours, since he was comparing it to the domestication of biotechnology.  That is a very simple comparison to me, again one which I agree with him.  As a layman, I have very limited access to biotechnology today, certainly not in the home (which is what domestication is getting at).  Now, one could get into another semantics argument that the domestication of animals and plants is also “biotechnology”, which changes the whole argument.  But I agree with you that biotech here is mainly tied to modern genetic engineering (rather than ancient genetic manipulations through breeding).

All to say that I thought your judgment of Dr. Dyson’s statement missed the point, and I suspect his words were actually very carefully chosen and bang-on.  I think this was an unfair critique of his technical literacy, though there are definitely other examples to make your broader point. -Russ

4 Responses to “Freeman Dyson – Biotech vs Nanotech Continues”

  1. John Blyler Says:

    Hi Russ. First, thx for taking the time to respond. Your thoughts seem well reasoned. With your permission, I’d like to include them as a response to my original blog post, mainly to help keep everything together.

    Second, here are my very quick responses, mainly to serve as an outline for a more proper response later on. I’m on deadline at the moment so can’t do much more than jot down a few comments:

    > “the taming of computers for the service of humanity” – But this is exactly the point. Computers are our creation, hence taming makes no sense. Aside from interesting side issues of carbon- verses silicon-based “life” form issues.

    > “commodity as an economic judgment” – In general, I would agree with you. But this blog was written for my audience which is technology oriented. Computers (PC, embedded, etc) are a commodity for them and will be soon for the majority of the planet, especially embedded system.

    > “Not appreciating the hundreds of year of animal domestication ..” – You trying to equate timelines that aren’t equivalent. The 50 years of R&D into electronics, materials, mechanics, physics and business models (VC, etc) needed to bring about the transistor and today’s nanotech miracles are incredible. Too move so fast in so short a time is almost inconceivable – especially in light of other enterprises (like animal domestication). But your viewpoint only supports my overall thesis, that most people have little understanding of the problems that had to be overcome to create even the simple ICs of the ‘80s, not considering today’s complex systems. And it is this lack of understanding (appreciation) – this taking for granted – that is in itself a great danger (recall Snow’s discussions from the ‘50s).

    Several of the speakers at these events have echo’ed the same warning. And that was my primary point, i.e., that even a person as famous, respected and educated as Dr Dyson should miss the complexity of our electronic age. His omission is understandable as his interest (bias) has now shifted to matters of genetic engineering and biology – fascinating as they are. Still, it’s systematic of an issue that affects all of mankind, namely, the lack of understand of our technical world. I don’t mean to resurrect old “humanities vs science (really, engineering)” issue, but that is the problem at its crux.

    Granted, your points and mine seem more focused on Science vs Engineering or Genetic Engineering vs Electronics Engineering, which makes it more interesting to me and probably more personal.

    To you last point, that I presented an “unfair critique of his (Dr Dyson’s) technical literacy.” I sincerely hope this was not the case as it was not my intention. Indeed, I’ve been interested in his work since a young physics major at school. Unfortunately, as an editor in these times of great economic upheaval for all publishers (print and online), I have less and less time to careful draft and review meaningful pros. This has forced myself and my colleagues to error on the side of exposure – of writing and publishing even simplistic articles – rather than not writing anything at all.

    Enjoyed your thoughtful response. Let me know if ok to publish. Thx. — John

  2. John Blyler Says:

    [Submitted by JB for Russ Parker]

    Hi John,

    I think my initial read and reaction on the article is probably due in large part to it’s limited format – an editorial response to a lot of content which I hadn’t actually seen. And there’s not much detail about the actual content of his talk in the editorial (which is of course unavoidable), so my response is more to how the article reads “as-is”. I do see your point and I think the underlying concern is valid – the arguments just don’t come across strongly (to me) in the limited space you were working with.

    Feel free to publish my response. I’ve dropped in a few additional follow-up comments below.

    -Russ

    On Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 2:32 PM, John Blyler wrote:

    Hi Russ. First, thx for taking the time to respond. Your thoughts seem well reasoned. With your permission, I’d like to include them as a response to my original blog post, mainly to help keep everything together.

    Second, here are my very quick responses, mainly to serve as an outline for a more proper response later on. I’m on deadline at the moment so can’t do much more than jot down a few comments:

    > “the taming of computers for the service of humanity” – But this is exactly the point. Computers are our creation, hence taming makes no sense. Aside from interesting side issues of carbon- verses silicon-based “life” form issues.

    RB>> Like you said, mainly a semantics argument. I like the concept of taming/domestication as a metaphor, because it matches up the idea of something that in the deep past would have been limited to “specialists” (animal husbandry) being brought to the “masses”. But I agree I’m looking at this purely as a metaphor, rather than anything literal (which is where I’d have assumed Dr. Dyson’s argument is also coming from – though I could of course be wrong).

    > “commodity as an economic judgment” – In general, I would agree with you. But this blog was written for my audience which is technology oriented. Computers (PC, embedded, etc) are a commodity for them and will be soon for the majority of the planet, especially embedded system.

    > “Not appreciating the hundreds of year of animal domestication ..” – You trying to equate timelines that aren’t equivalent. The 50 years of R&D into electronics, materials, mechanics, physics and business models (VC, etc) needed to bring about the transistor and today’s nanotech miracles are incredible. Too move so fast in so short a time is almost inconceivable – especially in light of other enterprises (like animal domestication). But your viewpoint only supports my overall thesis, that most people have little understanding of the problems that had to be overcome to create even the simple ICs of the ‘80s, not considering today’s complex systems. And it is this lack of understanding (appreciation) – this taking for granted – that is in itself a great danger (recall Snow’s discussions from the ‘50s).

    RB>> I wasn’t actually thinking in terms of timelines, so much as relative complexity. We’re agreed on the primary underlying point (there is risk in not appreciating the scope of progress), but I also think most people (including you) would vastly under-scope the more distant domestication comparison. And it’s understandable, because it all seems simple and self-evident to us – just like a PC seems to a teenager today. I don’t think the reference to domestication belittles or under-emphasizes the scope or complexity at all – it’s just in such a dramatically different context and timeline that most people would struggle to appreciate it. But for your readership I can see why that position works for you.

    Several of the speakers at these events have echo’ed the same warning. And that was my primary point, i.e., that even a person as famous, respected and educated as Dr Dyson should miss the complexity of our electronic age. His omission is understandable as his interest (bias) has now shifted to matters of genetic engineering and biology – fascinating as they are. Still, it’s systematic of an issue that affects all of mankind, namely, the lack of understand of our technical world. I don’t mean to resurrect old “humanities vs science (really, engineering)” issue, but that is the problem at its crux.

    Granted, your points and mine seem more focused on Science vs Engineering or Genetic Engineering vs Electronics Engineering, which makes it more interesting to me and probably more personal.

    To you last point, that I presented an “unfair critique of his (Dr Dyson’s) technical literacy.” I sincerely hope this was not the case as it was not my intention. Indeed, I’ve been interested in his work since a young physics major at school. Unfortunately, as an editor in these times of great economic upheaval for all publishers (print and online), I have less and less time to careful draft and review meaningful pros. This has forced myself and my colleagues to error on the side of exposure – of writing and publishing even simplistic articles – rather than not writing anything at all.

    RB>> Fair enough, and I can see where your underlying point is coming from – just that some of the comparisons didn’t ring true to me. That said, I’m sure most readers probably wouldn’t get too distracted by those details and would still come away with an appreciation of the main point. And I can only imagine the challenge of putting out quality content on deadline, so the critique is really more at the level of constructive feedback. I’d actually be curious as to Dr. Dyson’s own reaction – could be he’d agree with you :)

    I’m on the fence about these risks – human nature has always been to accept where we’re at and just push forward. But I can see how important it is that the big thinkers pushing the boundaries don’t lose touch with the complexity, especially when it leads to cascading assumptions whose individual errors are acceptable, but become unstable in combination. On the other hand, I think most people (even in high-tech) need to ignore much of the complexity and accept many of the assumptions, or they’d reach a point where they weren’t able to progress. Just like I don’t worry about first principles of electromagnetics when developing software or even doing RTL.

    Enjoyed your thoughtful response. Let me know if ok to publish. Thx. — John

  3. Peggy Says:

    Interesting interview with Anders.

    FWIW many of the statements of Dyson’s I’ve read about how he visualizes the future of biotechnology seem to wildly overestimate how advanced the current state of genetic engineering is. Dyson likes to make bold sweeping statements about fields outside his area of expertise, which may have little basis in scientific reality and has reportedly said his philosophy is that “it is better to be wrong than to be vague”.

    I also think his use of “domestication” differs from yours, since he was comparing it to the domestication of biotechnology. That is a very simple comparison to me, again one which I agree with him. As a layman, I have very limited access to biotechnology today, certainly not in the home (which is what domestication is getting at).

    Speaking as someone who has actually done gene splicing (and who has a personal computer) I do agree with this interpretation. Using a personal computer – and even making hardware modifications – is accessible to the general public in a way that biotechnology currently is not.

  4. John Blyler Says:

    “.. it is better to be wrong than to be vague.” That seems like another way of saying “be either hot or cold” but not neutral. I like that.

    Owning a computer is not the same thing as designing integrated circuits at 22 nm or deciding what is done by hardware vs software in a sophisticated mobile device. My only disagreement with Dyson and other “experts” is the casual way in which they underestimate the extreme complexity of electronic design. This underestimation extends to the general public, which has come to expect faster, cheaper, more feature rich electronic “miracles” without the slightest idea of the complexity. This, in turns, widens the divide between science/engineer and the humanities, eventually leading to the destruction of both – see C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.”

    That said, I’m thrilled to have a discussion with someone in the genetic realm. Is it difficult to splice a gene? Dyson talked about home gene splicing kits for around $250.00. Is that true?

    Thx for the input. –

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