The Age of Biology is here

The Age of Biology is here

Known Unknowns

2020 has been the year of Covid-19, President Trump’s post-truth politics, and visible climate change impact. Amidst social distancing, the race for the vaccine, and disastrous natural calamities, the Age of Biology has announced itself. The intersection of digital, materials, and biology will provide fuel for a new age of innovation. Artificial Intelligence mimicking biological neural networks and 5G continue to dominate the opportunity presented by digital. Amongst other advances in materials, biological materials such as synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) are powering medical advances. The applications of biology will go beyond health and food production to include efficient energy generation, customised entertainment, soft robotics, archaeology, and even customised education.

From a digital technology standpoint, the biggest advances of 2020 continue to be at the ‘edge’. Edge, here, refers to the ability to provide services closest to the source of data, including mobile phones, ground cameras, aerial cameras, routers, TVs, and industrial sensors. Neurocomputing chips have joined the CPU and GPU to power mobile phone edge computing. 5G promises to enable more than 100 MBPS average data rates, 100 times the traffic, and 10 times lower latency device-to-device intelligent, real-time collaboration at the edge. Technologies at the edge, providing faster, cheaper, and better services along with newer ways of extending human life and the comfort of living, are to be expected in 2021 and beyond.

The centrepiece 2020 technology advance is the mRNA vaccine. Thirty years in the making, the mRNA vaccine is a crowning technological accomplishment for mankind in recent times. The ability to use in-vitro generated mRNA to produce designer proteins inside human cells, synthetically modify the mRNA to enable smuggling it into cells without being detected and destroyed by the human immune system, packaging the mRNA into protective nano-particle envelopes, and doing all this without entering the cell’s nucleus and hence not causing long-term genetic changes -- these are nothing short of miraculous accomplishments, and reasons to celebrate 2020. Covid-19 has accelerated the introduction of mRNA-based vaccines to the market. The same technology is being used in stem cell research, cancer research, protein-replacement therapy, gene editing, and cellular reprogramming and engineering.

Here are three picks of other technologies at the intersection of digital, materials, and biology that we will see soon:

Augmented reality for enhanced biological data visualisation and robotics in healthcare: Three-dimensional visualisation and the ability to work interactively with image data are a current reality. Soon, surgeries will be performed virtually on images of the patient body, with a detailed representation of the organ being operated upon. The coordinates of the surgical procedure will then be provided to a robotic surgeon to perform the actual surgery, aided by live visualisation and registration of the organ. Surgery templates will be used as starting points and modified for each patient.

Wearable sensor-based recommendations for wellness, entertainment, and education: Recent scientific studies have established chronic inflammation as an indicator of general wellness and as a risk indicator for chronic diseases. It is now accepted that managing aging and disease is aided by measuring and managing inflammation. Currently available techniques for identifying inflammation and/or stress call for the use of markers that are determined via blood tests and lab analysis. However, soon, sensor data such as bio-impedance, heart-rate variability, along with pictures of the eyes, nails, tongue and voice samples, along with age and gender data, will be fused through AI to non-invasively measure inflammatory state and stress. Such systems will be used in wellness and find applications in recommending entertainment content, based on the mood of the user, and in customising pedagogy for educational content, based on assimilation.

Supervisor-less remote workforce: The role of the traditional supervisor is over. On factory floors, it is easy to see how CC camera-based feed can be combined with AI to detect compliance for personal protective equipment, zoning, breaks, eating at work, time taken for a task, and attendance. Even for remote working, maybe more so, digital supervision will become real. Privacy issues will have to get addressed through cultural and technological changes. These changes will include complete transparency, access to individual data, online monitoring of both physical and mental wellness of employees, entirely new research for ergonomics applied to work-from-home, and providing team building and networking opportunities to maintain the culture of the tribe. There will be an ‘enterprisation’ of the home.

Finally, a few words on climate change. Our planet exists in a very delicate balance. This balance is achieved through each constituent of the planet playing just its role. As humans, we have already strayed far from our narrative and have permanently damaged nature and even eliminated species. Let us raise a voice for the planet, for the frugality of consumption, and reserve the abundance mindset for giving rather than taking.