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 AR.edu 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
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)
Thoughts and questions
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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!