Archives For The Future

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DNA sequencing is following an exponential technology curve and is one step on a path towards controlling our own biological destinies.  From eliminating hereditary diseases by fixing specific genetic mutations to choosing physical and mental traits in our children, we are on the brink of a genetic revolution.  However, using DNA to store data is already possible and may be a game changer in the near future.

Let me explain 

In 2010, Dr. Craig Venter proved that DNA contains all of the necessary information for life by creating the first synthetic life form.  At the most recent Abundance 360 summit, he pointed out that the 4 building blocks of DNA (A, T, C and G) can be converted into binary (1s and 0s), which is the boolean system used by computers.  By converting ATCG into binary, it is possible to store and manipulate genetic code digitally.  Saving data to a synthetic DNA ‘hard drive’ works by converting binary back into ATCG.

DNA has evolved over billions of years to efficiently store information.  In 2012, researchers fit 700 Terabytes of information into a single gram of DNA. Storing that much data on digital hard drives would require hard drives weighing ~151 kilos (333 lbs).  This technology is improving exponentially and the very next year, researchers tripled the storage density to 2,200 Terabytes per gram of DNA.

IBM predicts that 35 Zetabytes (35 billion Terabytes) of data will be generated annually in 2020.  That’s ~7.6 billion kilos (8.4 million tons) of additional hard drive capacity required annually.  The average skyscraper, like the Sears Tower, is ~222,500 tons, so we would need to build 378 new skyscrapers in 2020 just to house our data from that year.  New York City has ~250 skyscrapers, so imagine building a new data storage city as big as NYC each year.

Even assuming that DNA data storage density doesn’t improve from the 2013 rate of 2,200 Terabytes per gram of DNA, we could store all 35 Zetabytes of annual data in ~15,909 kilos (17 tons) of DNA.  That’s less than 2 buses worth.

The primary thing holding this technology back is the current expense of sequencing DNA to convert the data back to binary.  Current DNA sequencing techniques cost ~$12k per Megabyte, which means that sequencing DNA that contains a 1 Gigabyte movie would cost $12 million.

DNA sequencing is an exponential technology and the cost is falling quickly.  Given the amount of data we will soon be generating and the physical space that would be required using hard drives, DNA data storage may be our only hope.

We are on the cusp of the personal robotics age.  The most optimistic think that it will only be another 2-3 years until we all have personal robotic assistants, drone deliveries, and robotic entertainment for accessing information and interacting with the world around us.  I think that we won’t begin seeing the beginnings of that paradigm shift until sometime in 2018, about 5 years from now.

For those that don’t believe domestic drones will ever be legal – laws passed in 2012 require the FAA to allow commercial drones in domestic airspace by 2015.  Just a couple months ago, the FAA released a roadmap for drone legalization by 2015: http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/media/UAS_Roadmap_2013.pdf.  In it, they set the stage for legalizing drone use by law enforcement, businesses, universities, and hobbyists.  Although they may not hit that exact deadline, it is likely that we are about to witness the emergence of a multi-billion dollar industry seemingly overnight.

Unfortunately, many people associate drones with military operations and the press has primarily cast them in a negative light.  The word drone makes most people cringe as they think about the dangers of militarized drones and possible reductions in privacy.  However, this way of thinking is akin to fearing computers in the 70s because of the possibility that they could be used by black hats to wreck havoc on society.

There are thousands of domestic applications for drones that will enhance our world.  Drones will be used in agriculture for targeted weed management, watering, harvesting, and transportation resulting in less pesticide use, less water waste and fresher food.  Restaurants and grocery stores will deliver food more quickly, Amazon will deliver packages within hours (though Amazon’s timeline is pretty optimistic), and logistical issues like traffic will be monitored real-time.  Little league games will be videotaped as though professional, weddings will be filmed from previously impossible angles, extreme athletes will more easily capture epic moments, and journalists will take pictures and video of previously inaccessible areas.

Other benefits to humanity include search and rescue operations, fire and wildfire control, ecological monitoring, deep ocean surveillance (yes, these are technically drones despite not flying), medical first responders, medical supply transportation, transporting food and water to impoverished areas, and disaster relief.

Drones can also be used for entertainment.  Imagine a stadium filled with spectators watching a game of drone quidditch (think Harry Potter), where the snitch is also a drone.  The drones are controlled by humans where their right arms control movement and their left arms control a primary mechanism depending on whether the drone is defense, offense, etc.

The future is coming – can you hack it?