By Greg Blonder
The next tidal wave of advances will be in biotech, and the person who
leads the way stands to reap immense wealth
In 1969, Paul Baran, one of the original architects of the Internet, made
what turned out to be one of the most prescient observations of the 20th
century: "Some persons (primarily computer programmers) claim the
richest man in the world in the year 2000 will be a computer programmer.
This may sound outlandish, but few really good programmers laugh when
they consider the assertion." (P. Baran, Institute for the Future)
was not at all self-evident back then. The 1960s, of course, were the
heyday of mainframe computing and well before the PC or the Web browser.
Yet even in those early days, a few minds were already beginning to consider
the logical consequences of computer power -- consequences that would
lead to, among other things, Bill Gates becoming the richest man in the
was there if you knew which questions to ask. It was like watching the
first oil well gushing from a Pennsylvania farm in the 1860s -- and imagining
100 million cars and the emergence of John D. Rockefeller as the richest
man in America.
signs around us are just as difficult to read, but, as Yogi Berra once
remarked, "You can see a lot just by looking." What will be
the next half-century's all-transforming technology? And who will reap
the riches to become the next Bill Gates?
OF CHANGE. I believe the answer lays in the confluence of three heretofore
largely separate trends:
- The evolution
of semiconductor-manufacturing capabilities and products into nanoscale
- The increasing
ability of biochemists to engineer genetic material at the molecular
- The exponential
growth of computer simulations permitting the design of clusters of
atoms at the nano dimension.
each trend evolved separately. But today, these trends have come together,
amplifying each other's capabilities and forming the nucleus of what I
call the 3N revolution.
SYNERGIES. Why these three trends? First, they are each attracting
huge numbers of very smart scientists and engineers from around the world
-- and one should never underestimate the potential of combined intellectual
three trends are already beginning to overlap in highly productive ways.
The gene chips from a company like Affymetrix rely on semiconductor processing
in their manufacture, new materials are now made directly in the computer
rather than empirically on the lab bench, and the Human Genome Project
depended as much on high-speed numerical analysis as on wet chemistry.
As the 3N
revolution marches forward, its synergies will deepen, blurring the distinctions
between organic and inorganic materials or between what must be observed
and what can be simulated. Engineers and scientists are increasingly able
to manipulate an unimaginable combination of molecules with unique electronic
and biological attributes, creating a whole new generation of building
blocks every bit as malleable, fungible, and extendable as 1s and 0s --
and at increasingly lower cost.
Out of this
3N convergence of technologies one can easily imagine:
- A reinvigoration
of Moore's Law, resulting in ever more powerful computers -- at less
cost and size.
- A proliferation
of enhanced everyday materials: flexible non-corroding concretes, solar
cells with three times the efficiency and a third the cost, artificial
bone that outperforms titanium, etc.
- The outright
cure of most diseases, or at least the conversion of acute diseases
into chronic but manageable conditions.
- The deliberate
enhancement of our own DNA and that of our children
The first two advances will probably enter society at a steadier historical
pace. It's the familiar story of steel replacing bronze replacing stone,
and so on. But it's the latter two advances -- disease elimination and
enhancements of the human body -- that are likely to produce the massive
discontinuities catapulting the next Gates or Rockefeller to the top of
the economic hill.
to cure, say, Parkinson's Disease is obvious, but the new 3N technologies
also contain the potential for "discretionary upgrades." With
a few simple genetic alterations, you or your children could become 20%
smarter or have the heart and lung capacity of Lance Armstrong.
raise obvious moral and ethical concerns. But at a time when many parents
obsess over getting their children into "Ivy League-track" day-care
centers and plastic surgery is a common birthday present, such concerns
would not likely stand in the way of the development of a substantial
CONFIDENCE. In the U.S., where at least 15% of GDP is spent on health
care, the productivity savings alone would transform and invigorate the
economy. Today, we cheer when annual GDP improves at a 3% rate. The emergence
of true "silver bullet" cures and body-part replacements would
make such rates very old news indeed.
In such an
environment, the first precondition for the next Bill Gates would be the
ability to build a brand. As soon as you start tampering with what it
means to be a human being, people will demand the assurance that the experiment
isn't going to backfire, and brands help people feel comfortable.
Here, a first
mover advantage will be tremendously important. The first person and company
using the new technologies to cure, say, Parkinson's and then take on
cystic fibrosis with the same tools will build the public confidence and
trust necessary for continued growth. And that person and company will
have built up enough political capital to also offer the human enhancements
-- both mechanical and genetic -- that go beyond mere health.
What's more, because the body is a complex and highly interactive machine,
few people will risk modifying one set of genes with products from two
companies. Who knows if they will play nice together? Again, all the conditions
are in place for a few large companies to dominate the industry -- or
perhaps just one.
next Bill Gates be an American? My guess is probably not. Religious pressures
and fear of change, already evident in the embryonic stem-cell debate,
will probably slow down U.S. research efforts -- just as other countries,
such as South Korea, accelerate their efforts to capture clear-cut economic
advantage. With a healthier population, they will spend less on medicine
and more on developing their economy. They will work harder and smarter.
We're in danger of being left behind.
Perhaps. But the 3N revolution is coming at us awfully fast. And the next
Bill Gates is probably already among us.