Fifty years ago in Princeton I watched the mathematician John von Neumann designing and building the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine. Von Neumann did not invent the electronic computer. What von Neumann invented was software.
It was the combination of electronic hardware with punch-card software that allowed a single machine to predict weather, to simulate the evolution of populations of living creatures, and to test the feasibility of hydrogen bombs. Von Neumann understood that his invention would change the world. He understood that the descendants of his machine would dominate the operations of science and business and government.
But he imagined computers always remaining large and expensive. He imagined them as centralized facilities serving large research laboratories or large industries. He failed to foresee computers growing small enough and cheap enough to be used by housewives for doing income-tax returns or by kids for doing homework. He failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds, and the emergence of computer-games as a dominant feature of 21st century life.
Because of computer games our grandchildren are now growing up with an indelible addiction to computers. For better or for worse, in sickness or in health, till death do us part, humans and computers are now joined together more durably than husbands and wives.
What has this story of von Neumann’s computer and the evolution of computer-games to do with biotechnology? Simply this, that there is a close analogy between von Neumann’s vision of computers as centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large corporations such as Monsanto.
It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.
I see a bright future for the biotechnical industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet-stores.
For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is for it to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower-breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business.
Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes, to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.
Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New species will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and industrial development have destroyed. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators.
The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age, but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur.
These games may be messy, but they will not be dangerous. We will not allow our kindergarten kids to play around with microbes. Once a new generation of children has grown up, as familiar with biotech games as our grandchildren are with computer games, biotechnology will no longer seem weird and alien. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of rural development, to help us solve some of our urgent environmental problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the Earth.
The previous is an excerpt from a lecture given by Freeman Dyson, published in 2007 by University of Virginia Press, in the book, “A Many-Colored Glass.”
Dyson, professor emeritus in physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, will discuss his book, “The Scientist as Rebel” on Wednesday, November 12, at 5:30 p.m. at Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street. Call 609-497-1600.
Dyson also will present “Domesticating Biotechnology” on Mondy, November 17, at 1 p.m. at Rider, as part of Life Sciences Week. For information about Life Sciences Week, see page 7.