John Naughton: Why it’s dangerous to liken DNA to computer code

The lure of bioengineering is obvious but we should be wary of bugs

A few days ago, on my way to a discussion in the exquisite little McCrum theatre, which is hidden away in the centre of Cambridge, I had to pass through the courtyard of the Eagle pub in Bene’t Street. As I did so, I suddenly remembered that this is the hostelry where, on 28 February 1953, Francis Crick, rushing in from the nearby Cavendish Lab, announced to astonished lunchers that he and James Watson had discovered the secret of life. (They had just unveiled their double-helix model of the DNA molecule to colleagues in the laboratory; there’s now a blue plaque on the wall marking the moment.)

As a graduate student in the late 1960s, I knew the pub well because it was where some of my geeky friends from the Computer Lab, then located in the centre of town, used to gather. We talked about a lot of things then, but one thing that never really crossed our minds was that there might be a connection between what Crick and Watson had done in 1953 and the software that many of us were struggling to write for our experiments or dissertations.

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John Naughton: How MIT was complicit in allowing Jeffrey Epstein to launder his reputation | John Naughton

The financier’s links to the institution are symptoms of a deep malaise in big tech

In the parallel moral universe known as the tech industry, the MIT media lab was Valhalla. “The engineers, designers, scientists and physicians who constitute the two dozen research groups housed there,” burbled the Atlantic in a profile of what it called the Idea Factory, “work in what may be the world’s most interesting, most hyper-interdisciplinary thinktank.” It has apparently been responsible for a host of groundbreaking innovations including “the technology behind the Kindle and Guitar Hero” (I am not making this up) and its researchers “end up pollinating other projects with insights and ideas, within a hive of serendipitous collaboration”.

That was written in 2011. In the last two weeks, we have discovered that some of this groundbreaking work was funded by Jeffrey Epstein, the financial wizard who took his own life rather than face prosecution for sex trafficking and other crimes. It should be pointed out that most of those researchers were entirely unaware of who was funding their work and some of them have been very upset by learning the truth. Their distress is intensified by the discovery that their ignorance was not accidental.

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