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The New Hacker Hobby That Will Change the World (technewsworld.com)
45 points by cwan on July 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

Ex-bio engineer here. I do not think the DIY bio community exists or will ever gain traction. For one, I don't understand how someone could do labwork in their garage. Two I don't understand how people could afford mandatory tools like PCR machines. Three, the results from your labor don't seem tangible or exciting. At least with the computer hacking movement in the 60s and 70s you could hold a computer in your hand, you could see improvements in speed and performance as you tinkered. When programming, the output of your code would be realized relatively quickly. Bio is too complicated, too tedious, and too expensive to ever be fun or support a hacker community.

Ex-plugboard operator here. I do not think the DIY computer community exists or will ever gain traction. For one, I don't understand how one could build a computer in their garage. Two, I don't understand how people could afford mandatory tools like hard vacuum pumps and tungsten furnaces. Three, the results from your labor don't seem tangible or exciting. At least with the car hacking movement in the '20s and '30s you could go for a drive around the town, you could see improvements in speed and performance as your tinkered. When doing mechanical work, the change in the sound of the engine would be realized as soon as you released the choke. Computers are too complicated to wire, too tedious to replace dead tubes and too expensive to ever be fun or support a hacker community.

Ex-engine mechanic here. I do not think the DIY car community exists or will ever gain traction. For one, I don't understand how anyone could build a car in their garage. Two, I don't understand how people could afford mandatory tools like a boiler welder or a metal lathe of required tolerance. Three, the results from your labor don't seem useful or safe. At least the the electric light movement in the '90s and '00s you could replace a dangerous and unreliable flame with a modern Edison Lamp. Why, you realize the benefits as quickly as you can toggle the switch lever. Steam engines are too complicated to tool, too dangerous to operate and too expensive to ever be fun or support a hacker community.

The difference between BioE is scale. Both cars and computers were built from large objects you could hold in your hand. BioE is at the nano and micro scale. Bio work requires a sterile environment, expensive hard to obtain chemicals, and fancy machines like atomic microscopes. In my mind Biohacking is as far fetched as nano-engineering and time travel.

Full disclosure: I have an undergraduate degree in bioengineering from 2008. I did a lot of lab work, but never worked in industry. I've went straight into web apps after graduating.

Everything becomes more convenient and cheaper with time (barring cataclysm). And just because something is a "large object" does not mean there is a huge amount of precision work involved.

I'll give another example. A telescope is big. But good luck grinding the mirror. You can do this by hand, by the way. To within a tenth of a micron. The really good guys actually do the final "grinding" with their bare thumb.

At one point, being an amateur astronomer required building your own telescope, entirely by hand. I have books that go through everything from grinding your own 6" mirror to making an equatorial mount. Then in the mid 1950s, companies started making decent small astronomy scopes. Oddly enough, a 6" scope today has the same price as a 6" scope in 1955 ($450), but that inflates to $3600 today.

Not too long ago I picked up a shoddy 4" scope for $10 at a yard sale. This would have been the worlds largest telescope, if you went back in time to 1800. How is that for progress?

The paraphernalia required to do professional work is always getting cheaper and easier to operate. Bio seems to be in a similar state as astronomy in 1930. The pros are using their huge 100" scopes on mountaintops. The amateurs are using homebrew 6" scopes. You've used the real deal, but that does not mean there isn't a lot of virgin territory within the reach of an amateur.

Tediousness is subjective, technology can reduce expenses, and complicated isn't really a problem. Solving complicated problems is part of what makes hacking fun.

I'd be more concerned with safety and that sort of thing.

Ah, but you're forgetting: with the rise of cheap, portable atom assemblers and reality compilers you can just construct your virus or your three-legged banana from the ground up.

Paraphrasing Feynman: "I believe that a hacker looking at nonhackerish problems is just as dumb as the next guy." The level of ignorance revealed in most comments on this post so far is somewhat shocking. Michael Nielsen once mentioned that HN'ers could be incredibly arrogant when treading outside of their area of expertise, and this is all the proof one needs. Either that, or Biology gets all the HN simpletons out of the closet.

Yeah, I haven't wanted to reach through the internet and smack so many people since the last time I read the comments for a YouTube video.

I suppose they deserve to know why they're wrong though. For starters the article isn't saying anything beyond the fact that there are people who buy used PCR machines and run reactions in their basement. Now, I think that's pretty cool, but nothing meaningful is going to come of it. There are a few reasons for this:

1) Biological Research Is Expensive - Setting up a real lab so you can do the basic stuff like running gels and western blots is going to cost somewhere around $100,000. Note that this isn't like buying a computer where once you pay for it you're set. Actually performing an experiment can cost hundreds of dollars for reagents alone.

2) Biological Research Requires Oversight - If you're going to work with radioisotopes, or toxic chemicals, or animals you need permits that are not offered outside of an academic or industrial setting. Two of the basic techniques of molecular biology, northern blots and southern blots, use radioactive reagents. I'll grant that there are alternatives that use fluorescence, but they're expensive, and aren't widely used.

3) Biological Research Is Tedious and Slow - I think part of the reason computers took off so quickly is that you can run a program and get quick feedback on whether or not it worked. Most of biological research is not like that. In graduate school I worked on genetic modifications that hypothetically extended the life spans of fruit flies. In order to see if a modification worked, I had to assay their life span over a hundred days. I'd normally be incredibly excited about getting the result on day one, but by day forty my interest was mostly exhausted. Biology doesn't give you the instant thrill of knowing a piece of code worked, which is one of the reasons it's not going to take off like personal computers did.

I'm not going to single anyone out, but if you've been making comments in this thread there's a high probability you have no idea what you're talking about.

Whether or not you are correct, your post would be greatly improved if it gave reasons why many of the comments are ignorant, or at least provided a specific critique of one of the more representative ones.

Wow - I'm really surprised at the polarization of the comments here. Seemingly, there are only Drexlerians with replicator futurism or old guard skeptics. This truth certainly lies somewhere in between.

For instance, is cloud-based synth/analytics really that far fetched / impractical? For example, have you seen the automation we're seeing with microfluidics?


Are you saying that hackers can't order biological systems the way we order custom circuit boards today? The means of production are comparatively high - yet it's very cheap to make them.

Techno skeptics love to say "why would". Futurists like to say "what if". The correct response is probably "how can".

My prediction: as soon as "DYI Bio" begins to have any real-world impact (or gets enough publicity), it will be banned/heavily regulated, at least within the US. It is too easy to come up with alarming scenarios if an accident happens or if the technology gets misused (which fits in very well with the current anti-terrorism rhetoric). Also, many corporations will not welcome the lack of control over some of the technology that a successful DYI Bio movement would bring, so they will lobby for "protection".

It is a bit sad to think that the first thing people think of is how impractical or malicious these ideas can be. How about instead of pure biology, it turns out to be a mesh of several fields? Photosynthesis + energy breakthroughs (custom designer plants for home decoration? grow your own furniture?), biological computing, or biomechanical machines...

Hobbyists making homebrew viruses. What could possibly go wrong?

I created a thread http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1483783 to try and get a list of synthetic bio startups. If you know one/work at one, would be great to hear about it!

The real question is: what will biology be able to do that computers arn't able to?

Back then the real alure was that computers could compute things amazingly quickly, and later, that through the internet, we could organize information on computer networks. And that everything could scale really quickly.

We may be entering an era of basement labs, but that doesn't mean that these breakthroughs will necessarily be life changing.

IT is working on the problems of organizing people and information. This will likely produce many more people working on solving human maladies. But all these things being done in basements without any regulation or standards may lead to some health risks for first movers.

By definition, these bio hackers will come up with things that are literally life changing.

The modern computing era started out with hobbyists, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs some of the most famous examples. This started less than four decades ago, now look where we are. Imagine if we had to wait for large corporations or governments to repeatedly try out new ideas and see what succeeded or failed. Democratizing technology poses risks as you mention, but also offers great potential for innovation. I hope the upsides of this new era outweigh the bad.

What biology will be able to to that computers aren't is to directly kill people, without detours over miscalculated radiation doses or decompression times for divers. Well meaning hobbyists in their basement will probably not endanger more than themselves and their immediate friends and family, but the same technoilogy in the hands of fanatics will open interesting venues for non-standard social interactions.

Therac 25!

I estimate the demand to be about one or two microbes world wide.

I personally suspect a lot of this pessimistic thinking is rooted in the fact that we simply haven't stumbled upon the key discoveries yet.

It's like when I speak with my co-workers, and I say 'what would you like this tool to do- anything you want it to do, I can make it do', and they reply 'well, what sort of things can it do?'

If I recall correctly, the microprocessor came about simply because Intel got tired of re-designing calculator chips from scratch, and so decided to make a one-size-fits-all. I doubt anyone saw microprocessors as the future back then; it was just a cheaper, easier way to make a desk calculator.

It is funny how history repeats itself. That story of Intel very much reminds me of Charles Babbage's transition from the single purpose Difference Engine to the more general Analytical Engine.

This kind of answer distracts from the honest and interesting question that thefool poses:

  The real question is: what will biology be able to do that
  computers aren't able to?
If you asked that question about carbon nanotubes ten years ago, I could have answered that question and I think many people would have been interested in the answers, as the ideas and speculations on the subject wouldn't yet be widely known. In the same way, I would really like it if someone knowledgeable answered this question: what actual things are thought to be feasible through tailoring micro-organisms?

This chap's fairly knowledgable... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHL7Drfj0B0

Produce stuff - with computers, it's all virtual. Biology extends into the material world.

Also maybe cure diseases.

640 microbes ought to be enough for anybody.

Synthetic biology will introduce a different set of building parts (DNA, RNA, and protein), methods of energy consumption (ie: photosynthesis) and something computers can't do -- reproduction. It will be a good thing to have alternatives that rely on completely different resources as technically everything is a limited resource.

That said, current synthetic biology does not strive to become an alternative to computers, but instead compete or work together with nanorobots. Perhaps something computer-like will happen once we have synthetic cells figured out and also create large artificial systems with them -- but that's a distant future, if ever, its ethics will be heavily debated.

"The real question is: what will biology be able to do that computers arn't able to?"

Biology "apps" could give you the ability to jump higher, run faster, grow stronger and live longer. They could even make us smarter.

Personally, I find all of that very compelling.

We may be entering an era of basement labs, but that doesn't mean that these breakthroughs will necessarily be life changing.

Heh, "changing life" is exactly what biology can do that computers can't.

Ok, interesting... So where are the links to these online communities of thinkerers? We heard about this many times over the last few years but I'd be curious to see what exactly is done.

http://openwetware.org/wiki/Main_Page has a ton of great info. Good starting point.

Wetware is a much more dangerous game that's why doing any kind of biological research involves working in some big lab with tons of cash flow and management personnel that have connections to health organizations and various government oversight committees. A runaway biological virus is much more dangerous than a runaway computer virus so I'm not expecting an emergence of the biological valley any time soon.

It is far, far more easy for a malicious person to intentionally create something "bad" than for a good person to do it by accident. That said, a malicious person would not be able to create something "bad" without a tremendously large amount of funding and manpower.

So lets imagine a malicious person with funding and manpower turns up: Sure, totally synthesised genomes will turn up and you will be able to email some guy who generates your operon to stick into whatever, so the barriers of entry for a bio-terrorist will be lowered somewhat; but even then the knowledge of how to create a killer virus will be scarce.

And after 20+ years of gained knowledge, once a billionaire Bond-villain with a fortress of henchmen* has made a killer virus, it is tricky to imagine it out-competing any virus created by nature's hands - she had several million years worth of head-start and a hell of a lot more funding.

So, yes, it is very unlikely, but still possible. However, if you were going to go to all that work to spread some virus, I would strongly recommend that you just learn to make nukes instead. They are much more reliable, predictable, and will have less fallout for you to worry about.

*Although a Government could much more probably fill this role.

'lack of standardization of bioparts...'

Heh... I wonder what will play the same role as SCSI this time around...

My understanding from talking with people in the field is that BioBrick parts aren't nearly as turn-key as could be hoped. I'm sure that over the next decade or so, they'll get much better, just as computer technology did, but they aren't there yet.

It took some 100 years to get from Kirchhoff's circuit laws to the transistor. Taking into account that biological networks are much more complex than electrical ones, count yourselves lucky that any modularity at all is even attainable. If any HN'ers out there can do better, the world eagerly awaits for your blinding brilliance to bear fruit.

Frequently bricks aren't compatible or affect the expression of other bricks in a totally unpredictable manner. The only way of guaranteeing a working biobrick made of many biobricks is to combine as many combinations of biobricks-which-do-the-same-thing as you can find, and use the ones generating the best gene expressions. Even then you might want to take the best 3 or 4 as they will behave differently when combined with other bricks.

Damn! b3c.org is taken... BBB:=Big Biology Boom

Very cool, but a little scary to ponder what could happen when Fluffy Bunny gets ahold of a DIY genetic engineering kit.

For those who understand German: Podcast about biohacking: http://chaosradio.ccc.de/cre143.html

I bet 90% of thes "basement labs" are just covers for manufacturing meth. Biology is too expensive, and if you want to pursue synthetic biology you can get well funded to do so by the NIH. You don't need a big corporate lab, you just need to go to grad school.

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