18 Nov The Evolution Of The Biohacking Ecosystem
Silicon Valley efforts in the biology and health domains have recently seen increased public interest because of the questions around the legitimacy of Theranos’ technology and medical claims and the recent FDA approvals for a number of 23andMe’s genetic screens.
These data points are just two of the most visible examples of a broad ecosystem of companies and startups in Silicon Valley working on biological problems. This early “biohacking” ecosystem has a number of parallels with the personal computer (PC) ecosystem in the 1970s and 1980s.
A major accelerant for the PC revolution was the rise of different startups tackling the different layers of the PC stack — competition at each layer led to exponential innovation for the whole. Painting broadly, we can break that technology stack into two basic abstraction layers: hardware and software. There’s an emerging parallel developing in the biohacking world.
For hardware, instead of CPUs, disk storage and RAM and their associated APIs, biohackers have the “hardware” of wearables, genetic and blood tests and other tools to collect biological signals and their corresponding APIs to surface up this data in computable and queryable formats. Software and applications provided business and casual users a friendly interface to modulate state on their PCs. Biohackers today are already using “software” to modulate their mental, physical and biological states and/or alter their healthcare decisions.
The Hardware And API Layer
Early hobbyist computers were sold as project kits, something to be pieced and hacked together. To program the classic Altair 8800, for example, hobbyist hackers had to manually flip switches on a panel and the only included output was corresponding panel lights. They’d upgrade their boxes with add-on cards for paper tape storage and an interface to connect to a Teletype terminal.
The Apple-1, although it came with a fully assembled circuit board, required users to acquire their own power supplies and video displays. In short, hackers had to piece together systems and parts from different vendors and hack them together.