The Biohacking Frontier

1x02 The Biohacking Frontier

In this newsletter we've mostly talked about technology as it relates to society in terms of external advances--topics like machine learning or virtual reality, and how they impact culture, society, and lives in general. Although we'll always skew occasionally towards the cyberpunk aesthetic--talking about augmented humans--there is another avenue of inquiry that we haven't really jumped on yet: biotechnology and biohacking.

This issue of the newsletter was prompted by a rediscovery of a 2017 Wired article where researchers showed that you could encode malicious software onto DNA--software that doesn't affect the human host in the traditional sense of biohacking, but instead affects gene sequencers, and other genetic or forensic software and machines. Although impractical today, it proves that the future may bring us not only augmented humans, but humans encoded with programs that activate upon scanning. Imagine a criminal hacker gaining access to a forensic lab by virtue of encoding software on a deceased person whose genetics are scanned with a handheld device at the crime scene? What effect could hacks like these have on bio-metric scanners at the airport?

This has important implications for cybersecurity, as well as national security. Malicious software scanned at a university that attaches to a university's research network could be used by foreign agents to spy on the proprietary research of defectors. Just a few years ago, several universities were the targets of a hacking attempt by foreign actors who were attempting to spy on researchers formerly connected to China. This just creates another entry point that InfoSec experts must now protect against.

Although this threat is rather far off, it represents an important accomplishment in biohacking that points to areas of potential exploitation in the future. --Michael Szul & Bill Ahern

Editor(s) Note:

For those in the Virginia/DC/Maryland-area, Michael will be speaking at Nation JS in Washington, DC on May 10th about modern JavaScript, and what you can do with it.

DNA Data Storage

As we continue to produce more and more data, one of our glaring needs as an industry, and a society, will be the storage and protection of that data. Scientists have long toyed with storing information in DNA--from simple messages to videos--but much of that data storage requires a significant amount of manual manipulation. The University of Washington--in conjunction with Microsoft--is attempting to automate much of the manual process needed in order to create a viable storage device capable of translating digital information to genetic code and back again. The machine itself is vastly expensive, and data being stored is minuscule, but it's a single entry in a growing field of DNA storage that is seeing significant work by such companies as Micron and Intel, as well as researchers at MIT.

The future might not contain Johnny Mnemonic-style brain implants for expanded storage, but instead, terabytes of data encoded in DNA. --MS

Are AI's Capable of Art?

Recently on the Codepunk podcast, Bill and I talked about the artistic side effects of machine learning, and debated whether artificial intelligence is truly capable of artistic expression. --MS

Synthetic Biology: Now or Later?

It seems like we've been waiting over the last two decades for the ultimate tipping point in biotechnology. That one hack that turns us into makers of not just machines, but of humanity. CRISPR was heralded as the tool to usher in the age of genetically modified humans, and the cure to all ailments, and although some breakthroughs have trickled into the news, it hasn't been as fast a process to develop as the media had initially promoted (and warned us of the implications). Much like the tired trope of an evil AI taking over the world, I feel like the future dystopia of designer babies is much further off than we think... and much more a fear that reflects our own insecurities and bad behavior as a species. Neither potential fear is as immediate a concern as climate change at this point.

But this is likely a case of the hype cycle outweighing the actual scientific maturity, and the lull we've entered into is one where the real research and innovation is occurring. Some authors are quick to point out that we're only just beginning the age of synthetic biology, while organizations like iGEM are bringing synthetic biohacking to the masses. Don't forget that you can already download gene compiling software to edit DNA base pairs--a software whose founding company was recently purchased by Twist Bioscience who currently offers off-the-shelf genetic material. Oh, and that same company? It has an iGEM edition of it's software, and it happens to be assisting Microsoft and university researchers in the DNA data storage mentioned above.

What this tells us is very simple: The age of the Internet has shaped our ideas on communication, collaboration, software, and democratization to the point that the coming biohacking frontier already has the way paved for it to accelerate faster than the machine-based hacking that has come before it. --MS

Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

Founders KBS is a bourbon barrel chocolate coffee stout sitting at 12.2 ABV (not for the light-hearted). It's rich and smooth with a pronounced chocolate flavor, and a delicious oak whiskey finish.

One of my all-time favorites. --BA