Imagine storing digital information in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the substance that carries genetic information in the cells of living things.
What about wearing a device that makes you more intelligent or creating new materials by changing the genes of microorganisms?
These ideas may sound unreal, but scientists are creating technologies that use their knowledge of biology and make changes with a computer. These scientists are working with artificial intelligence (AI), using the power of computers to copy intelligent human behavior.
Some of the researchers presented their findings at the 2018 Milken Institute Global Conference. The meeting was held recently in Los Angeles, California.
The researchers spoke at a group discussion called “Things That Will Blow Your Mind.”
“The machine finds stuff in biology that a human would never find,” said Joshua Hoffman, chief executive officer of Zymergen. He said his company is performing experiments that would never have been possible just a few years ago.
Changing microbial genes
Zymergen uses computers to design experiments that change the genetic structure of microorganisms. As a result of the changes, the chemicals produced by microbes can make stronger or better materials.
“We use automation and machine learning to engineer microbes… to turn them into the chemical factories of the future,” Hoffman said. “What we’re doing is we’re searching the genome for the things that might work. What machine learning does is it looks for patterns that a human wouldn’t find in ways that are more likely than not to have the genetic changes in the genome that are going to have the impact, the trait, that we want.”
Hoffman said that what takes humans years to discover, computers can do in months. His company works mainly with the chemicals and materials industry, as well as agricultural companies.
He added that Zymergen works on creating non-harmful chemical products that protect plants from disease.
Improving the human brain
Vivienne Ming set up Socos Labs, an independent research group.
Ming studies how the brain works. She wants to know if it is possible to make human beings more intelligent by physically putting things into their brain.
“How much you can think about, pay attention to, mentally operate on at any given moment ... we’ve actually found that we can increase that by about 15 percent,” she said.
Laboratories around the world are already studying different ways to improve the brain’s cognition and treat conditions like autism and depression.
Ming said one example of how this research could help is by improving the cognition of under-served children.
Instead of requiring students to attend special classes, Ming said, “We might actually be able to use that technology that brings them right back up with the rest of the kids.”
In a world with artificial intelligence, improving cognition is one way for humans to compete with machines, she added.
DNA information storage
Hyunjun Park and his company, Catalog, make artificial DNA used to store digital information.
Park warned that since people are creating so much information from the internet, social media, and wireless communications, we soon will not have enough space to store it. He feels we need a new way to save this information.
Park said current digital forms of information storage take up lot of land and city space. It also costs lots of money to supervise.
However, Park feels that DNA can store much more information, and that it can last thousands of years. He says his company has learned how to do it for less money than other laboratories.
Park said his company’s researchers use a liquid, which they move to look like different pieces of DNA. Then, for storage, they dry it into particles, which are stored in a container.
He said an industrial size model for DNA storage can be ready as early as 2019.
Park says that as biology scientists continue to explore the future of artificial intelligence, investors are starting to pay attention.
“These traditional investors…they are now looking at biotech and seeing this as really the future of innovation,” Park said.
I’m Phil Dierking.
Elizabeth Lee reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
artificial - adj. made, produced, or done to seem like something natural
automation - n. to run or operate (something, such as a factory or system) by using machines, computers, etc., instead of people to do the work
cognition - n. the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering
digital - adj. using or characterized by computer technology
genome - n. the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.
impact - n. the act or force of one thing hitting another
innovation - n. the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods
trait - n. a quality that makes one person or thing different from another
stuff - n. materials, supplies, or equipment
pattern - n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done