The Speed of Knowledge

Genetic Code June 2013In 1987, the US Department of Energy announced a 15-year project to map the human genome, with a projected start date of 1990.  By 2000, scientists working on the project submitted a draft of the human genome, and submitted the final fully-mapped genome by April of 2003.

Yesterday, Eric Lander spoke about the project at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival, illuminating the stunning progress that has been made in the decade that has passed since we completed the first map of a single human being’s genome.

That’s what I want to write about here.  Not just the progress of this particular scientific achievement, but the exponential speed of progress when a community is focused on a goal.  And the economics society experiences as products and services move from invention to mass production.

In his presentation, Dr Lander talked about the cost of mapping that first genome – approximately $3 billion.  That was for the genome of just one person, although there was work being done simultaneously to map the genome of E-coli bacteria and the common fruit fly, which may have accounted for a part of the $3 billion price tag.  If that cost held steady for every person in the world, it would cost… well, clearly it would be too much for us to pay.

Today, a decade after the first genome, it costs about $3,000 to map a genome.  One million times cheaper.  Let’s try to put it into perspective:  the first flat plasma display was produced in 1964, by a team led by Donald Bitzer at University of Illinois.  Because that invention was part of a bigger problem, it’s hard to figure out exactly how much it cost to invent, but let’s estimate the research cost at $2 million.  If the price of a plasma tv had fallen as far as the cost of sequencing a human genome, a tv would now cost $2.

When I first heard about the project to map the genome, I wasn’t all that impressed.  I’m a practical sort of person and I wasn’t sure where this was headed.  It seemed like a lot of effort, to get a lot of information that wasn’t really going to lead to very much.  The idea that it would take 15 years to map just one person’s genome?  Well, it seemed like lunacy.

What I forgot was about the exponential speed of invention.  Coming up with the idea takes a minute:  “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could (fill in the blank).”  Creating a prototype takes longer – days or decades, depending on the complexity of the idea.  For example, if you have a great idea for rosemary-flavored lollipops, you could probably make them in your kitchen this afternoon.  But if you have a great idea for leisure travel to Mars, well, that’s going to take a little longer.

Dr Lander said, “We grossly overestimate the short term impact of technological advances, and grossly underestimate the long term impacts.”  Boy, that’s true… we hear the news and think all our problems are solved, then later,  we lose sight of how far we’ve come.

No matter the invention, the first one takes longer than the second.  Imagine those lollipops again.  For the first lollipop, you’re going to have to find a recipe to make candy.  Then you’re going to have to experiment with the right amount of rosemary.   You’ll spend a lot of money on ingredients before you get the first batch that tastes good, and you’ll throw out a lot of inedible product.  But once you get what manufacturers call “first articles”, you’ll be able to make the second batch a little faster and a little better.  And soon, you will be humming along, making lollipops faster and cheaper than you thought possible.

By carefully parsing the data, the ongoing Genome Project is identifying genes that contribute to schizophrenia, heart disease and diabetes.  The identification of these genes help us answer the perplexing questions I might have about why one person doesn’t get heart disease even though he or she has all the bad habits that might suggest it.  Or why someone gets diabetes even though they appear to eat a healthy diet.

Through the iterative cycles of learn-and-apply and learn-and-apply-some-more, the genome project has done spectacular work in identifying and addressing genes that contribute to a significant portion of the world’s cancers.  Biomedical researchers have driven that data further, by identifying therapies that address these genes specifically, improving the efficacy of treatment.

According the Dr Lander, there are estimates that our understanding of the genome has contributed over $900 billion* in economic value, through medical advances and more effective cures.  We are approaching the point at which our knowledge about genetics is swamping other areas, such as patient privacy concerns, computing speeds for big data, and legal wrangling over who owns the information.  (Apparently, the Supreme Court recently said that the genome cannot be patented, so at least we don’t have to worry about some scientist making millions on our personal genetic abnormalities.)

Genetics is a huge field, and by writing about it here, I didn’t mean to scratch even the surface of the topic.  Instead, I’ve used it as an example of one very powerful idea:  Human knowledge is exponential.  When you know a little bit, you can do a little bit.  But when you add 1% to your existing knowledge, synergy kicks it.  That existing knowledge, combined the new knowledge make you more than 1% smarter.

This is what we should be looking for:  the ways to expand our minds that bring us MORE for every data bit we take in.


photo credit:  Libertas Academia,


*From Fortune magazine, in an unrelated article:  “by one estimate, the federal government’s $3.8 billion investment into the Human Genome Project has netted $796 billion in economic benefits, including 310,000 jobs and $244 billion in personal income. “

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