The games kids play...

December 3, 2004

If home biotechnology becomes the latest fad, we'd best start laying down rules, says Freeman Dyson

Fifty years ago at Princeton, I watched the mathematician John von Neumann design and build the first electronic computer to operate with coded instructions.

He knew that his invention would change the world, that the descendants of his machine would come to dominate the operations of science, business and government.

But he imagined that computers would always remain large and expensive. He failed to foresee computers becoming small enough and cheap enough to be used by kids to do homework. He failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds.

There is a close analogy between Von Neumann's vision of computers as large centralised facilities and today's public perception of genetic engineering as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto.

I see a bright future for the biotechnical industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that Von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralised.

I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where breeders show off the results of their efforts. I was imagining what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people.

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners to create new varieties of roses and orchids. The technology will allow lovers of pigeons, parrots, lizards and snakes to breed new varieties.

Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that big corporations prefer. New species will proliferate to replace those that farming and industrial development have destroyed.

Designing genomes will be a personal thing, an art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age. But they will involve real eggs and seeds rather than images on a screen.

Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur.

These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.

If domestication of biotechnology is the future, five important questions need to be answered:

* Can it be stopped?

* Ought it to be stopped?

* If stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it?

* How should the limits be decided?

* How should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally?

Within a few decades, biotechnology is likely to replace most of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and manufacturing industries.

Biotechnology will use land and sunlight as its primary sources of raw materials and energy. Fortunately, sunlight is most abundant in tropical countries where most of the world's people live and poverty is most acute.

Since land and sunlight are distributed more equitably than coal and oil, biotechnology can be a great equaliser, helping to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries.

With the aid of biotechnology, the children in every village of Africa could enjoy their fair share of the blessings of civilisation. They might even get to play the same biotech games.

Freeman J. Dyson is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, US.

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