One of the primary objectives of the proto-science of alchemy was to turn lead into gold. It seems a rather base goal (forgive the pun), and more in the realm of magic than technology. Nonetheless, alchemists around the world laid down some of the foundations of modern science.
The alchemists never succeeded, but as it turns out, you can turn lead into gold. Since every element is merely a collection of protons, neutrons and electrons, if you can manipulate the content of a nucleus you can change lead into gold. People have done so. Unfortunately, the process isn’t exactly practical, requiring huge amounts of energy from a particle accelerator, or depositing the lead in nuclear reactor.
Selling that might be even harder than selling Ratner’s jewellery.
Early in 2017 a team of scientists took the next step in creating truly programmable organisms. We may look back on this as synthetic biology’s ‘Turing moment’, the point at which an expensive specialist machine starts to become an affordable generalist platform.
Imagine being able to program a bacterium to produce materials, biofuel, cotton or spider silk. Imagine being able to program it to make medicines. Program one, feed it and watch it divide, exponentially increasing your production capacity.
The potential is endless, as are the pitfalls. Such power needs careful constraint. And yet, it is following the same path of all technologies: it is becoming cheaper and more accessible all the time.
Basic genetic engineering is already at the point of being a toy, in terms of its cost and ease. How long before I can buy a genetic programming platform as readily as a 3D printer?
Technology is the tools by which we manipulate nature
I have rather pigeonholed myself as a ‘tech expert’ over the years. Occasionally I struggle against this self-applied categorisation, worried that it limits my scope and people’s faith in my advice.
But then I follow little rabbit holes of research into alchemy (inspired by a throwaway comment on a recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage) and synthetic biology, and realise that technology — properly defined — is barely a pigeonhole. It represents the grand scope of our ability to affect our environment, an endeavour that I believe defines us as a species.
This is why I start with technology — in the broadest sense — when looking to the future. Technology is the means by which we make change, whether intended, or unintended.