As readers of a biotechnology trade magazine, you have probably heard of Moore’s Law. You may even be sick of hearing about it, and for good reason—the exponential growth of technological capabilities describes many fields, including biotech.
The practice of manipulating life became a technology with a common currency—where MIPS or transistor count might serve as measures of computer sophistication, sequencing cost and construct length became some of the measures for synthetic biology.
Talk of biotech has since become inundated with computing analogies: DNA as computer code, gene clusters as circuits, etc. If so, we are currently writing the binary code by reverse-engineering poorly documented hardware held together with duct tape and gum, operating in an area with frequent brownouts over an extraordinarily slow modem. Even so, we do see Moore’s Law-style advancements in the tools to engineer life. As a result, biotech needs to look closely at another prominent feature of the computing world: obsolescence.
Obsolescence is a concept that affects us at every level: products become obsolete, as do skills, technologies, and mindsets. Even governments and species can find themselves pushed into the pages of history or the fossil record. We adapt as best we can, learning new skills when demand for our current set declines; even politicians have to heed the call of reality now and then.
Technological development moves faster than it used to—more scientists and engineers means more minds thinking, developing, creating. Advancements in communications and information management further amplify this effect—reinventing the wheel has been almost invented out of existence. What happens with your computer—a new version every year, faster, more efficient, more powerful—is now the rule for biotech research.
Sequencing of single genomes and proteins, once an appropriate subject for doctoral theses, is now a service done inexpensively in a few weeks of work. The move from groundbreaking to routine seems to be happening faster every day, and this means that the value of time is ever-increasing, each minute more valuable than the last.
The same amount of time buys you more and more information the longer you wait, just as waiting gets you more features on your new laptop for the same price. There’s just one catch: you can’t afford to wait, especially as the competition continues to grow.