Netscape co-founder-turned-venture capitalist billionaire investor Marc Andreessen once posited that software was eating the world. He was right, and the takeover of software resulted in many things. One of them is data. Lots and lots and lots of data. In the previous two years, humanity created more data than it did during its entire existence combined, and the amount will only increase. Think about it: The hundreds of 50KB emails you write a day, the dozens of 10MB photos, the minute-long, 350MB 4K video you shoot on your iPhone X add up to vast quantities of information. All that information needs to be stored. And that's becoming an issue as data volume outpaces storage space.
The race is on to find another medium capable of storing massive amounts of information in as small a space as possible.
"There won't be enough silicon to store all the data we need. It's unlikely that we can make flash memory smaller. We have reached the physical limits," Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corporation, says. "We are facing a crisis that's comparable to the oil crisis in the 1970s. By 2050, we're going to need to store 10 to the 30 bits, compared to 10 to the 23 bits in 2016." That amount of storage space is equivalent to each of the world's seven billion people owning almost six trillion -- that's 10 to the 12th power -- iPhone Xs with 256GB storage space.
The race is on to find another medium capable of storing massive amounts of information in as small a space as possible. Zhirnov and other scientists are looking at the human body, looking to DNA. "Nature has nailed it," Luis Ceze, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, says. "DNA is a molecular storage medium that is remarkable. It's incredibly dense, many, many thousands of times denser than the densest technology that we have today. And DNA is remarkably general. Any information you can map in bits you can store in DNA." It's so dense -- able to store a theoretical maximum of 215 petabytes (215 million gigabytes) in a single gram -- that all the data ever produced could be stored in the back of a tractor trailer truck.
Writing DNA can be an energy-efficient process, too. Consider how the human body is constantly writing and rewriting DNA, and does so on a couple thousand calories a day. And all it needs for storage is a cool, dark place, a significant energy savings when compared to server farms that require huge amounts of energy to run and even more energy to cool.
Picture it: tiny specks of inert DNA made from silicon or another material, stored in cool, dark, dry areas, preserved for all time.
Researchers first succeeded in encoding data onto DNA in 2012, when Harvard University geneticists George Church and Sri Kosuri wrote a 52,000-word book on A, C, G, and T base pairs. Their method only produced 1.28 petabytes per gram of DNA, however, a volume exceeded the next year when a group encoded all 154 Shakespeare sonnets and a 26-second clip of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. In 2017, Columbia University researchers Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski made the process 60 percent more efficient.
The limiting factor today is cost. Erlich said the work his team did cost $7,000 to encode and decode two megabytes of data. To become useful in a widespread way, the price per megabyte needs to plummet. Even advocates concede this point. "Of course it is expensive," Zhirnov says. "But look how much magnetic storage cost in the 1980s. What you store today in your iPhone for virtually nothing would cost many millions of dollars in 1982." There's reason to think the price will continue to fall. Genome readers are improving, getting cheaper, faster, and smaller, and genome sequencing becomes cheaper every year, too. Picture it: tiny specks of inert DNA made from silicon or another material, stored in cool, dark, dry areas, preserved for all time.
"It just takes a few minutes to double a sample. A few more minutes, you double it again. Very quickly, you have thousands or millions of new copies."
Plus, DNA has another advantage over more traditional forms of storage: It's very easy to reproduce. "If you want a second copy of a hard disk drive, you need components for a disk drive, hook both drives up to a computer, and copy. That's a pain," Nick Goldman, a researcher at the European Bioinformatics Institute, says. "DNA, once you have that first sample, it's a process that is absolutely routine in thousands of laboratories around the world to multiply that using polymerase chain reaction [which uses temperature changes or other processes]. It just takes a few minutes to double a sample. A few more minutes, you double it again. Very quickly, you have thousands or millions of new copies."
This ability to duplicate quickly and easily is a positive trait. But, of course, there's also the potential for danger. Does encoding on DNA, the very basis for life, present ethical issues? Could it get out of control and fundamentally alter life as we know it?
The chance is there, but it's remote. The first reason is that storage could be done with only two base pairs, which would serve as replacements for the 0 and 1 digits that make up all digital data. While doing so would decrease the possible density of the storage, it would virtually eliminate the risk that the sequences would be compatible with life.
But even if scientists and researchers choose to use four base pairs, other safeguards are in place that will prevent trouble. According to Ceze, the computer science professor, the snippets of DNA that they write are very short, around 150 nucleotides. This includes the title, the information that's being encoded, and tags to help organize where the snippet should fall in the larger sequence. Furthermore, they generally avoid repeated letters, which dramatically reduces the chance that a protein could be synthesized from the snippet.
"In the future, we'll know enough about someone from a sample of their DNA that we could make a specific poison. That's the danger, not those of us who want to encode DNA for storage."
Inevitably, some DNA will get spilt. "But it's so unlikely that anything that gets created for storage would have a biological interpretation that could interfere with the mechanisms going on in a living organism that it doesn't worry me in the slightest," Goldman says. "We're not of concern for the people who are worried about the ethical issues of synthetic DNA. They are much more concerned about people deliberately engineering anthrax. In the future, we'll know enough about someone from a sample of their DNA that we could make a specific poison. That's the danger, not those of us who want to encode DNA for storage."
In the end, the reality of and risks surrounding encoding on DNA are the same as any scientific advancement: It's another system that is vulnerable to people with bad intentions but not one that is inherently unethical.
"Every human action has some ethical implications," Zhirnov says. "I can use a hammer to build a house or I can use it to harm another person. I don't see why DNA is in any way more or less ethical."
If that house can store all the knowledge in human history, it's worth learning how to build it.
Editor's Note: In response to readers' comments that silicon is one of the earth's most abundant materials, we reached back out to our source, Dr. Victor Zhirnov. He stands by his statement about a coming shortage of silicon, citing this research. The silicon oxide found in beach sand is unsuitable for semiconductors, he says, because the cost of purifying it would be prohibitive. For use in circuit-making, silicon must be refined to a purity of 99.9999999 percent. So the process begins by mining for pure quartz, which can only be found in relatively few places around the world.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.