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What is the biodigital convergence?

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In this video, we discuss how the convergence of digital technologies and biological systems is becoming a part of our future, and how it may impact our lives. The information provided in this video is based on research conducted in 2020.


Marcus Ballinger, Manager
Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais, Foresight analyst
Avalyne Diotte, Foresight analyst
Kristel Van der Elst, Director general
Eric Ward, Senior director


NARRATOR: Digital technologies and biological systems are beginning to combine and merge in ways that could be profoundly disruptive to our assumptions about society, the economy, and our bodies. We call this the biodigital convergence.

Over the past 40 years the economy has transformed through digital evolutions in information technology, like the Internet, smart phone, applications, and big data analytics. The biodigital convergence could change the way we design and manufacture goods, revolutionize healthcare and agriculture, modify our environment, and even alter how humans evolve as a species.

Today, many innovations are driving the changes but what are the key things
we should be looking out for?

What new biodigital capabilities could completely alter the world?


MARCUS BALLINGER: My name is Marcus Ballinger.

ERIC WARD: My name is Eric Ward.

KRISTEL VAN DER ELST: My name is Kristel Van Der Elst.

PIERRE-OLIVIER DESMARCHAIS: My name is Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais.

MARCUS: The whole biodigital thing is about really the convergence of two domains that tend to be thought of as separate. Essentially you take something that’s biological and something that’s digital, and you smush them together.

Like a “DragonflEye”, for example, and what they do is you take a dragonfly, obviously a biological entity, and you stick a microchip on the back of it and it’s wired into the sensor, so the nerves of the biological entity you can actually control the dragonfly. Straight integration of two things, that one’s pretty obvious to people.

The second one is one where you’re getting really large advances in one domain that are predicated on advances in the others. So an example would be knowing what genes turn things on or off. But the only reason we can do that is because we have massive digital technology that can actually do the sequencing. You can use AI to figure out which of the appropriate genes, so you wouldn’t have gotten those biological advances if you didn’t have the digital advances.

The third way is more of a conceptual convergence. So we’ve tended to think of life as being sort of random and unpredictable, it has an unknowability about it. Whereas we’ve thought about digital technologies being very predictable and precise, like you program a computer and it does a specific thing, and it doesn’t deviate from that thing.

What we’re seeing as the technologies converge is that we’re now understanding biology. Actually it’s a lot more predictable, it’s looking more like the digital technologies. We can actually program genetic sequences, or we can program DNA to do specific things so we can we can program organisms in the way that we used to think we could program machines.

On the opposite side, what we’re finding is that digital technologies as they get more complex, like artificial intelligence for example, it sometimes acts in unexpected ways. So in many respects it becomes more like what we originally thought of biology as being unpredictable and random. And so when we’re thinking about things we might be thinking about it as an integration or synthesis of those two concepts, rather than as two separate things.

PIERRE-OLIVIER: One of the ideas that surprised me the most, was within the last couple of years, when a Chinese researcher gave birth to what we call the “CRISPR-R twins”, which is a biotechnology that allows us to modify DNA in vitro, and we can start to imagine, within ten to fifteen years, where that technology could lead us.

The prospect of maybe being able to eliminate some diseases and also immunize the human body, even an entire generation, against some diseases. It’s also the possibility of personalizing humans in the future.

AVALYNE: One of the strangest things, or weirdest I suppose that I’ve had to wrap my head around, is synthetic biology, molecular coffee for example. I was researching a company in Seattle that is making coffee without the bean. So they’re looking at it from a sustainability angle and there’s a lot of movement in the biodigital with sustainability. So everything from 3D printing meat in your kitchen, printing a chicken breast instead of it coming from a farm, to making coffee without the beans synthetically.

MARCUS: I think one of the weirdest things was there’s a robot and they put brain cells in it. Although it’s not conscious or aware in the sense that you would think we are aware, it seems to make decisions, like the brain seems to decide where it wants to send the robot. So I find that really bizarre.

ERIC: Through our foresight research we started to see the integration of our networked information technologies and the biological systems that have evolved on earth, and that we’re getting a third thing and that’s new, that’s what we want to explore in foresight.

AVALYNE: So this could be a big game changer, with yeast and bacteria, we can make anything out of yeast. We’re starting to see people able to make things in their home that previously would have taken entire research units and labs, and that’s what’s so interesting about the biodigital is it’s accessible.

KRISTEL: We think that the convergence of biological systems and digital systems are at the point where digital technologies were in the 80s. So, this biodigital convergence opens the door to entirely new ways of changing our bodies, our minds and our behaviour. It also allows us to modify our ecosystems, to create new organisms. We’re also going to see a new way of perceiving, storing, processing, and transmitting information. We could also restructure our supply chains and methods of production.

We think that, in coming years, these biodigital technologies will be as integrated as digital technologies are today. It could also lead us to question what it means to be human, what we consider natural. So, given the magnitude of the implications of the biodigital convergence, we must start thinking about what is possible and what we want to see in the future in order to build the biodigital future we want.

ERIC: What I’m hoping for out of this study is that we can generate some good rich pictures of plausible different futures of the biodigital convergence for Canada. I do have a lot of hope for what the next generation might be able to achieve as we move through the biodigital convergence.

During the information technology decades, we have really focused on the knowledge economy. If we’re going to do the biodigital right, the kind of choices that we’re going to have to make are going to require actually more than knowledge. It’s going to require wisdom.

KRISTEL: The biodigital convergence will affect many different industries and policy areas. For an analyst, it could be very interesting to start looking at what might happen. How does it affect my area or responsibility? Are there changes I should start preparing for? Should we write new laws? Do we need to change our policy strategies to reach our goals? Are there investments we should contemplate to take advantage of the opportunities created by the biodigital convergence?

Or, are there conversations we should have as a society to know what society wants and how we can prepare, precisely to seize the opportunities without suffering unintended consequences of such a huge shift.

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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