“Column by Bill Walker, posted on April 20, 2005
I shovel telomeres for a living. My friends in the computer industry are always asking me: ‘Why can’t you biotech guys cure cancer? Or aging? Or the common cold? What do you do with all those billions of government research dollars?’
Well, it’s time to confess: Biologists bought three stuffed mice and two petri dishes in 1974. These are recycled in staged publicity photos in such high-profile popular glossies as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell, and Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. Our much-hyped ‘gene sequencing,’ ‘chromosome imaging,’ etc. are all done on Photoshop by companies in Taipei . All the rest of the money goes to yachts, scuba equipment, and private islands in Fiji for all postdocs and research associates. That’s why medical researchers always look so tanned and vigorous.
OK, seriously: If the computer industry were running under the same conditions as biotech, this is how it would work:
There would be a Federal Data Administration (FDA). Every processor, peripheral, program, printer, and power cord made in or imported into the USA would have to obtain FDA approval. This would require an average of 19 years of safety testing on lab rats and clinical trials for effectiveness on nerd volunteers with informed consent, before prescription for general human use is allowed. Any change of any kind to any chip, ergonomic keyboard, or line of code would require re-approval of the entire system and any hardware or software that could in principle be connected to it via Internet, intranet, or hand-carried disk.
In the medical system, this sort of approval can be done for only a bit over $802 million per drug or medical device (Tufts study, 2001). So it might cost only a few times more when applied to a global industry producing next-generation silicon chips. Anyway, how can anyone put a price tag on safety? Think of the children!
Today even someone who dropped out of college could legally own a large software company. To remedy this unconscionable state of affairs, state licensing boards would be created to require American Mainframe Association (AMA) membership for all computer professionals. This would ensure that all programmers go to college and postgraduate school for at least eight years, and then serve multi-year nerdships and residencies before being allowed to practice independently. Thus programmers would be fully prepared to start writing BASIC programs by age 28-30, and attain full professional status by their 40s.
These AMA professionals would prescribe for consumers the ‘right’ hardware and software (within the prescribing and cost limits of the appropriate HMO, see below). To guard against improper (‘recreational’) use of computers, all information products would now require a prescription from a professional.
A Data Enforcement Agency (DEA) would be empowered under the asset forfeiture laws to confiscate the property of smugglers and users of illegal data processing paraphernalia, such as that used in so-called ‘video games’ or ‘palm pilots.’ The DEA would also have the responsibility of ensuring that no unapproved data flows in or out of our borders.
Then the IRS would make buying computers for the home use of employees a deductible expense for employers (but not for employees), as is true of health insurance today. Companies would be forced to buy computers for their employees through Hardware Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), instead of allowing the employees to buy them directly.
Finally, the Federal government would hire hundreds of thousands of programmers and chip designers to work in government-run ‘computer research,’ controlled by NIH, the various armed services, and other fountains of innovation. Private ‘cybertech’ companies could have whoever was left over . . . if they could figure out how to con investors into funding companies which were rarely allowed to sell their products.
If we had really let government run the computer industry this way, there would be no Intel, IBM or Apple. There would be no chip industry. There would be no Internet. The NIH would be funding hundreds of labs to develop better vacuum tubes.
Now, all you programmers who are snickering at the poor dumb biologists: let me point out something. You, personally, aren’t made of doped silicon. You are made of DNA and some other junk banging around inside lipid bilayers. If you want to improve your life in any meaningful way, you need to be able to buy stuff to upgrade your DNA system.
Some organisms, like Bowhead whales, already manage to make DNA systems work for over 200 years. That means their cancer control is 1,000 times as good as ours (twice the lifespan times 500 times the cell number), and their aging control is at least twice as good. A real free-market biotech industry could pirate these already-existing DNA programs and sell them to you cheap (whales don’t get royalties, and DNA replicates as easily as chips do).
So, since you computer guys have all the money, it would behoove you to use a little of it to get rid of the FDA and all the rest of the medieval guild nonsense that encrusts the biotech industry. Then you would finally see some progress against cancer and aging.
Oh, the common cold? We could wipe out the existing varieties, but RNA and DNA hackers will always resequence new types. Viruses will always be with us; you just have to continuously update your immune system’s definitions. “