By Annalee Newitz
WHEN WILL we tire of the endless scandals over bricking iPhones, RSI-causing Wiis and Playstation shootings? I think the time is coming soon, my friends. In fact, the whole consumer electronics craze is about to die off and give birth to a new home-tech phenomenon. I refer, of course, to the consumer biotech revolution that's just on the horizon.
Consumer biotech isn't a new idea. Home pregnancy tests are a form of consumer biotech, as are Viagra and Prozac. Many diabetics administer insulin using small computers that measure their blood-sugar levels and administer appropriate doses when necessary.
I call this stuff consumer biotech because it measures and alters biological states for the mass market. And when smart phones become as boring as dumb ones, the lust for cool new biotech will replace the lust for new game consoles. Here are a few ideas about what will happen when consumer biotech goes beyond medical devices and into the realm of entertainment.
DNA Crystal Ball: Already, people are jumping at the chance to get their genomes sequenced using cheapo services like GeneTree.com. Meanwhile, scientists at Georgia Tech have invented a biosensor for identifying viruses that is the size of an attaché case. So it shouldn't be long before we have handhelds that identify sections of your DNA that offer hints of your distant parentage as well as what kinds of characteristics you're likely to develop as you age.
Of course, nobody really cares about the science behind this crap—they just want to be told a cool story that predicts what will happen to them based on their allele configuration. Thus, the Mattel DNA Crystal Ball, a little computer that will spit out pseudo-scientific "predictions" about you based on poorly researched genomics studies.
If you have this or that allele, you might become an artist! Or you might be quick to anger. Your ancestors might have been Indian princesses or African warriors! Since the device will be sold purely "for entertainment," nobody will ever get valuable information about a predilection for breast cancer. But they will metastasize happily knowing that they've got the "gene" for friendliness.
Clonies: Kids love shrinky-dinks, the toys where you color in a piece of plastic, stick it in the oven and it shrinks down into a hard little plastic ornament, so why not do the same thing with tissue engineering? Using techniques already perfected by a bunch of Australian tissue artists from a lab called SymbioticA, kids will create wee "clonies," tiny versions of themselves grown out of their own skin cells using tissue-engineering edifices.
Just culture a bit of your skin and grow it in a Petri dish while you build a little model of yourself out of the foamy edifice. Once you've got a few inches of skin, drape them on the edifice, let it grow for a few days, and presto!, a tiny version of you, made of your own skin! You'll get days of fun, and then you can dispose of the clonie in a handy biohazard container (sold separately). Try it with your dog, and your friends!
Gene Expression Jam Session: Remember how cool Garage Band was back when people thought playing with computer networks was as fun as playing with cellular signaling mechanisms? Jim Munroe has predicted that in the future every kid will have an EZ Bake Oven for growing new animals, but the Gene Expression Jam Session will be way cooler.
Mix and match the genes of your choice using an easy user interface and rewrite your biology on the spot. Want to glow green for the evening or sprout hair all over your body? How about growing an extra pair of arms out of your torso? Gene Expression Jam Session will produce the genes you need to do it, enclose them in a nifty virus shell vector for quick delivery to very own DNA, and shoot 'em right into your arm for fast-acting fun! Once you're sick of your newly engineered appearance, you can buy a plugin that reverses the effects of your newly added genes or adds extra genes to make you look even wilder!
And don't even get me started on the consumer nanotech revolution. You just haven't truly lived until you've turned your pet goldfish into a golf ball.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has this weird growth on her head that won't stop flashing the Google logo until she pays for a Jam Session upgrade.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.