One of my favorite scenes in the film Jurassic Park is the conversation that happens over lunch table on the conflict between Science, Commerce and Ethics. Jeff Goldblum playing the role of a chaos theorist asks a bunch of poignant questions on the ethics behind the whole creation of the park, the technology and how it conflicts with Nature.
The scene is a classic where some of the quotes like the one below raises concerns on the selfish motive of the innovators, armed with an array of investors with pure commercial interests, unleash their wares out in the open, before some serious thought has been given to their long term implications.
Genetic powers is the awesome force the planet has ever seen. You wielded it like a kid that has found his dad’s gun.
… the lack of humility displayed here before Nature, staggers me.
Recently, I happened to read about couple of start-ups in the biological space that made me think. The first one being a blood testing company, Theranos.
Theranos ticked all the boxes plus a few more for a classic silicon valley exuberance. Disruption on a common human need (blood tests, in this case), Technology Innovation for its lab testing instrument (smartly named as Edison machine), a claim to transform a painful experience into a pleasant one (the needle jabs), and serving up yet another ‘instant’, personalized experience (in contrast to waiting on results). Everyone loved the story and the company was valued at $9 Billion. This meteoric rise is no surprise for Silicon Valley and venture capitalists were pouring in funds, and as is the norm for success, the board included a Stanford professor and even the former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
Hell broke loose soon and there were lots of questions on the efficacy of the lab tests with claims that the company didn’t even use its own innovative technology to do the tests. Apparently, the Wall Street journal came up with an extensive investigative story and the company’s labs have been stopped by the FDA since then.
The other story that intrigued me is another bay area startup called Habit, that wants to fix the way we eat. For a subscription fee and a sample of our blood and saliva, Habit will get a personalized diet and a session with a dietitian. We are living in a hyper-personalized era and hence why not monogrammed food.
I am sure many of the food giants would be ready to pump in millions. I am no genetic expert to even talk about the scientific basis of these products and the current state of nutrition genomics. What worries me is the underlying Data, which is the common denominator on every innovation these days and the way they shape our destiny acted upon by a bunch of algorithms.
How much are we ready to compromise on our identity that has now crept into our blood samples and genetic sequence? Living in a highly ‘social’ world, we have already compromised our identity with all the digital exhaust that we leave with our daily interactions. It is really frightening to think about the implications of the possible ‘data products’ that might come out of these bio-informatics companies and who all could potentially lay their hands on this data – all with a commercial intent for sure.
I am no technophobe and in reality none of these innovations or disruptions can be stopped because we need the same technology and research to solve some of the complex problems humans would face, say, in the field of finding the cure for some diseases, energy needs and food. The scary part is the rate at which some of these technologies would get unleashed and swarm our lives. Very few can really understand or control these changes, leave alone govern them. Who is to set the ground rules on data collection, administration and controls? It is just a matter of time for these innovations to hit mainstream for us mortals to fall for free stuff in exchange for losing a little bit of our identity.
Going back to the Jurassic Park lunch table conversation, as Jeff Goldblum says,
It dint require any discipline to obtain it.
No doubt technology is going to fundamentally change the way we live and it already does, but, equally essential is taking the little time to think, reflect upon and apply the right discipline for a meaningful use of the technology for larger gains.