Reading _Soonish_, part 3: from augmented reality to precision medicine

Today we continue our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 7-9, which shift from digital technology to the life sciences by covering augmented reality, synthetic biology, and precision medicine.

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, or wherever else you like.  After all, our distributed book club is working away.  Last week’s post saw a bunch of comments from a wide range of perspectives and commentators, including Kelly Weinersmith.  And Britt Watwood wrote up a fine blog post,  Keep ’em coming!

Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag /soonish/.  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.


Chapter 7: Augmented Reality

Here we shift from robots to sensory technologies, focusing in on augmented reality, or AR.  The chapter begins by showing AR as virtuality reality’s inverse, then describes many current projects and likely uses, such as the DAQRI Smart Helmet:

The authors address a series of key AR concepts like registration (166) and the shift from purpose-built AR devices to smartphones (169).  They go on to explore potential problems like “diminished reality” and friction between people over what AR content can be associated with which physical locations (181-2).

Educational uses in both formal teaching and informal learning loom large (176, 183ff), which gratifies me, since I’ve been telling people about since 2001 or so.

There is also an AR app for Soonish based on a key concept from an earlier chapter:

There is also a wild and silly digression into nostrils and binasality.

PS: remember that the Digital Bodies site and team are the go-to place and people for AR, VR, and MR in education.

Chapter 8: Synthetic Biology

SoonishThis section focuses on genetic engineering and other biohacking approaches.

It begins with an introduction to DNA and RNA, then cites a series of present-day examples of helpful ways to edit biology, including gene drives (201), using bacteria to gather bodily information (203), and tricking microbes into generating fuel (208).  We’re also introduced to CRISPR (212); more on that below/in the next chapter.

We also learn about iGEM, a biohacking contest for students, which sounds awesome (216), and get updated on the possibilities of hacking extinct organisms back to life (221).

Chapter 9: Precision Medicine

Now we start to shift away from digital hardware and software to the life sciences, or from “Stuff” to… “You”, as the book proclaims in its table of contents.  This chapter addresses new ways of more precisely conducting medical treatment.

The Weindersmiths start off with how we currently derive information from the human body, including the emergent field of biomarkers (230), and what we know about genetic diseases, before plunging into CRISPR’s possibilities for editing DNA and humanity.

[T]he cool thing about CRISPR is that it’s a general tool for fixing genetic disorders.  Any disease that is caused by one or more genetic mutations should be vulnerable to this method of targeted gene edits.  If CRISPR ends up being a silver bullet for gene problems, you could fire it at Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. (237)

The chapter also dives into new cancer diagnoses and treatments (238ff), featuring uses of MicroRNA (239), T cells (242), and improved metabolic information (244-5).  Therapies might start to come down in price (254).  Ultimately, “[p]recision medicine may give us a way to bring the dreams of the age of magic and make them a reality in the age of science.” (256)

Naturally there are potential problems.  As with digital technology, governments, and businesses, precision medicine gives rise to privacy abuses and grim insurance responses (250-1).

Thoughts and questions

  1. I wonder why the Weinersmiths focused more on augmented than virtual reality.  Has VR arrived more thoroughly, or is it just less likely to have major impacts on the world?
  2. Chapter 8 briefly endorses genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food, arguing that their benefits can be crucial for “provid[ing] more calories and vitamins to poor communities” (221).  Do you agree?
  3. While precision medicine can lead to privacy nightmares, one response is to turn control over biodata back to individuals, as with the Personal Genome project (252-3).  Is this a realistic strategy?
  4. Which of this week’s reading’s technologies strike you as most likely to benefit the world?  Also, which scare you the most?

One more thought: I’m amazed that this book manages to accessibly cover a wide range of seriously complex science while making me laugh.  A lot.

Next week we’ll complete Soonish by reading the final three chapters, namely chapters 10 (Bioprinting), 11 (Brain-Computer Interfaces), and 12 (Conclusion).

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or on whichever Web-based platform you prefer!

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8 Responses to Reading _Soonish_, part 3: from augmented reality to precision medicine

  1. Interesting question on AR vs VR. The 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies shows VR as moving into the Slope of Enlightenment, while AR still sits in the Trough of Disillusionment. Not sure if this had any impact on the Windersmiths positioning of these two technologies.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good catch, Britt. Seems like AR is behind VR by one stage.

    • AR definitely still has a long way to go. Our sense was that the technology for AR is starting to improve, however, in ways that don’t necessarily have anything to do with AR. For example, as our smartphones get better, a lot of things you’d want for good AR (ability to know where you are in space, a screen, etc) are coincidentally being developed.

      But also – we felt like technologies that still have some major, fundamental challenges to overcome were more entertaining to read about than technologies for which only tweaking of existing technologies are necessary. We tackled a few technologies that were farther along, but the most satisfying technologies to write about were a bit farther behind. For example, we thought the problem of the best way to view AR (through glasses? contact lenses?
      smartphones?) and the registration problem in particular were interesting for AR.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        That makes all kinds of sense, Kelly. VR definitely looks farther along the developmental track – although I’m fascinated by the way we’re discovering how to tell stories with it.

        The viewing problem is a biggie.

  2. Hello!

    In response to Bryan’s question: “I wonder why the Weinersmiths focused more on augmented than virtual reality. Has VR arrived more thoroughly, or is it just less likely to have major impacts on the world?”

    I felt like Augmented Reality had a bigger potential to permeate our lives. For example, you could use AR at work, while driving, at the movies, in your home, etc. Basically, AR could become a constant part of our everyday lives. My sense is that VR is amazing, but wouldn’t permeate quite a deeply (for example, you’d take your VR goggles off to drive to work, but might leave your AR glasses on). So we decided to go with AR.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ah. That makes a lot of sense.
      Do you think that, once we get it going, AR will set up mixed reality by bringing in VR?

  3. Harry Baya says:

    Augmented Reality:
    I see the most useful function currently available to be the ability to provide information to an individual doing a task – such as when I repair something, or when a surgeon is operating. However, the other area that fascinates me is the idea of augmenting music. AR could provide the missing visual instrument. Though VR might be better for some aspects of this, AR could permit using the current environment, including other people present. I see VR and AR as overlapping quite a bit.

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