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Biological Computing
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1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy

Emerging Topic:

1.4Biological Computing

Associated Sub-Fields

The component parts of biology often take a molecular input, carry out some process using molecular or cellular “machinery”, and output a related molecule or set of molecules. This has clear parallels with the way silicon-based computing works: take some input, transform it using some arrangement of Boolean logic gates, and produce some output. This observation has seeded the field of biological computing, or biocomputing, in which researchers attempt to modify or build biological systems to perform computing-like routines.

Biological computers need not necessarily be like conventional computers, and that is both their potential and their challenge. The biological cell is more than a “little engine” and can process chemical information in ways that do not fit with what we usually identify as information processing. This may allow us to go beyond what is possible with traditional computing. But in order to fully tap into this potential we will need to break out of the mindset imposed on us by our usual paradigms of engineering and digital computing. There are technological barriers too: our tools and techniques for modifying and re-assembling the components of molecular biology — largely shared with synthetic biology research covered in later sections of this report — still lack the precision necessary for many of the breakthroughs we would like to achieve.

However, there are many good reasons to pursue this research effort. It is becoming increasingly clear that biocomputing may be uniquely applicable to such challenges as environmental remediation, drug discovery, the production of novel materials and medical diagnosis, among others. As we discover more about the range of biological computing processes, optimised by evolution over billions of years, we are likely to find additional unanticipated benefits.

Selection of GESDA best reads and key reports

Researchers from various academic institutions and Microsoft Research’s biological computing effort, Station B, produced an insightful report in 2018. “Computing with biological switches and clocks”1 gives a historical view of the subject, plus the authors’ vision for its future. “Pathways to cellular supremacy in biocomputing”2, published in 2019, gives an overview of the potential of the field. Two 2014 papers also provide valuable foundational overviews: “Synthetic analog and digital circuits for cellular computation and memory”3 and “Principles of genetic circuit design”.4

Attempts to understand biological systems in computational terms have been underway for some years now. Significant work on new bio-architectures and implementing logic operations in cells is already ongoing, though awareness of the field is generally low. Respondents judged that biological computing is likely to have its biggest impact on the environment, pointing towards the potential for bioremediation and the development of new catalysts that boost the sustainability of industrial processes. Of particular note are novel paradigms that could unleash a stream of new applications within the next 15 years. Low awareness of their potential suggests this is an area that requires particular attention.

GESDA Best Reads and Key Resources