One Argument for Bringing Biology and Technology Worlds Together

by Bradley Miller on February 16, 2010

Biology and technology have much to learn from each other - concepts from each discipline can inform and help create breakthroughs and new businesses. Image courtesy of Scientific American

I recently sat down with a friend who’s developed an ingenious way of using neuroscience concepts and neural networks as the basis for an information filtering algorithm. He’s taken that algorithm and created a personalized and customized news feed from Twitter.  In short, he’s helping to actually make sense of the Tweetstream.

So, what do I really mean by saying that he has employed neuroscience concepts as a foundation for his algorithm? First, think about the brain and how it processes incoming signals and stimuli – if it’s an important signal, say a pouncing mountain lion, it’ll get through all the other noise and register with you.  Much the same way, my friend’s technology uses a couple “filters” that determine whether the incoming tweet is relevant to your interests. If it’s relevant and important it’ll pop up in your news stream. In works much the way that neurons in the brain work – in order for a signal to pass along it’s gotta make the next neuron fire.  The same can be said about tweets this technology filters – if it’s relevant and important it makes it through the algorithm.

The second instance of neuroscience inspiration in this friend’s Twitter algorithm comes from the basic premise that how and what we forget is just as important as the things that we actually remember.  Think of it this way – if we remembered EVERYTHING that we see, hear, touch, smell and taste our brains would be overloaded and wouldn’t work efficiently.  We’d have trouble actually finding memories in our brains if we stored too much information.  The same goes for computer systems – learning how to forget, to get rid of irrelevant or increasingly irrelevant information is just as important as figuring out what to keep. However, the tricky part is figuring out what to forget and what’s worth remembering. That’s part of his trade secrets.

By merging his knowledge of computer science with a dabble of inspiration from neuroscience my friend has been able to pull together a really, really compelling product that might actually make Twitter useful for the 95% of the population that’s not on it. Where other techniques have failed to make sense of the Tweetstream, my friend’s inspiration from the fundamentals of neuroscience has greatly aided his product.

In the above example neurobiology has inspired and informed computer science design, but it’s also a clear case of how this interdisciplinary approach can help both fields make advances.  Another example would be 23&me. I clearly don’t think much of their business model or clinical relevance – but they did inspire some advances in bioinformatics through employing experienced techies to help build their data systems.

See, this is what you get when you mix biology with technology! 🙂

What I mean is that (as I’ve been told anecdotally) one of the things 23&me did absolutely right was hire a number of engineers from eBay who were fantastic at database engineering and management.  Instead of bringing in data folks with 10 years of background in bioinformatics and creating databases the way a biologist would, 23&me created an extremely efficient and scalable system for their genomic data.  This type of insight will enable science to make more advanced breakthroughs all that much quicker and effectively. It has also enabled 23&me to have a more feasible business model as well. Technology enabling and inspiring the advancement of biology.

All of this to say that in the world of entrepreneurship and design there’s a lot that the intermingling of bio and tech can bring to help inform and advance both fields.  I’m hoping that Bio+Tech can be one of those ways that technology and biology can intermingle to bring about not only a more vibrant start-up community here in San Francisco, but to help create breakthroughs and inspiration for the next generation of technologies. Drop me a line if you’d like to attend the meetup on February 17th!    windmiller[at]gmail

Biology and technology coming together isn't really a new concept - it's clearly been occurring for thousands of years. We just need to continue to encourage new interdisciplinary approaches as see what comes of it. A beer along the way doesn't hurt, either.

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