The Fifth Revolution

June 27, 2017

One of the most dramatic changes witnessed by people alive today has been the explosive growth of the internet and its ability to connect people and intelligent machines of all kinds. The next manifestation of this growth is expected to be a pervasive Internet of Things, now simply designated as IOT – in part to signify its expected stature as a dominant feature of our future built environment.

How big will the IOT be? According to recent estimates by CISCO, the leading internet infrastructure provider, we can expect to see 50 billion (10^9) devices and about 45 zettabytes (10^21) of data annually traversing the internet by 2020. That’s over a billion trillion bytes or pieces of unique information.

The potential new economic value of IOT is estimated to be over $20 trillion, more than today’s entire GDP of the United States, and one hundred times the GDP of New Zealand or Peru. Much of this growth will come due to efficiency gains, which remove human labor from transactions and processes. Economists call this “increased productivity”. Experts in complexity look forward to making sense of the larger, more tangled web of data to extract new insights about society, human nature, and efficient transactions ranging from trade agreements and tweets to sustainable fisheries and consumer supply chains.

Some observers even foresee gains in peace and human dignity worldwide.

All this, from a system of human-engineered interconnections, electro-mechanical exchanges of 1’s and 0’s. There are certainly more gains in productivity to be achieved. Expectations are high for this coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

Where else can such radical transformations be sought? In the biological information fluxes of our planet’s living systems.

Revolutions are happening faster and faster these days – and new understanding of biological life on earth will soon usher in “The Fifth Revolution”, which will make the IOT seem like a border skirmish.

Why? Because biological life is so complex.

How? By understanding and gaining the ability to organize the world’s biological information flows. This is an audacious goal. And it’s a goal that The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group plans to address.

Consider some comparisons that illustrate the magnitude of opportunity involved. The Internet of Things (IOT) will be 45 zettabytes or 10^21 bytes by 2020, a $20 trillion economic opportunity that will affect all our lives.

People think the IOT is big in part because the sheer number of devices and messages involved is large compared to our everyday experience of tangible things we can see and feel.

As one example, the night sky shows us the stars. The number of stars in the entire known universe is about 10^23, just a hundred times the expected number of bytes on the IOT. Our humble home, the Milky Way galaxy, has “only” 10^11 stars – about 100 billion, about twice the number of devices that will soon be connected to the internet here on earth.

Both the stars in the sky and the human-built IOT, however, are tiny compared with the amazing evolved complexity of living things on earth. The human body is made up of about 10^14 cells. There are about 10^7 unique proteins, often considered the building blocks of biology, even though there are still other important materials such as carbohydrates and lipids which carry additional information. So, conservatively, one individual of one species comprises about 1 zettabyte (10^21) of biological information.

Further, there are at least 10 million animal and plant species on earth, and for the purpose of estimation, about 1 million individuals per species. This means there are 10^13 zettabytes in what could be termed the “Internet of Species” or “IOS”, the vast network of interconnected living things. The IOS is the equivalent of 10 trillion IOTs.

If even 0.01% of estimated economic value (relative to the IOT) will be generated through the IOS, this is $20 billion trillion, or more than the global GDP over the entire history of human civilization.

This is a rough estimate, with uncertainties on the order of 10-100 fold. The estimate makes a point, however, about the magnitude of information flows in living systems. If one were to then add the content of all living organisms (including the prokaryotes, bacteria, viruses, and other smaller living entities) the amount of DNA code, proteins, carbohydrates, and other information-carrying materials would be much larger. So the estimates are simply lower bounds illustrating the magnitude of information flows in living systems.

Some specific examples of information flows in living systems are the molecular binding of a protein or other organic molecule by a single cell’s membrane receptors, initiating a cellular response which could range from cell division in a healing skin wound or a cancer tumor, to increased insulin production; a pilot’s reactions to engine shutdown that allows creative responses such as emergency landing on water; a corn plant’s reaction to pest attack; fish that school in the presence of predators; transfer of genetic materials naturally by bees and other pollinators carrying information from plant to plant; teamwork in a corporate business unit; Michelangelo’s creation of the frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; and the inheritance of musical talent from a grandparent to her grandchildren.

Imagine abundant, low-water food crops, clean fresh water and atmosphere, production of building materials without environmental degradation, delay or avoidance of diseases, improved social communication and co-existence, and enhanced creative performance in many fields.

When it comes to pass, The Fifth Revolution will overshadow the prior four revolutions in human productivity, by harnessing the power of complex living systems to produce energy, food, clean water, and resilient ecosystems, enabling more peaceful, creative, and fulfilling human lives and societies.

Because nature and evolution have built this incredible array of diverse networks, the IOS, to a scale that exceeds the human-made IOT by 10 trillion times, it warrants a serious look at how to explore this vast frontier.

The explorers, scientists, engineers, and theorists who take on this challenge must have courage, imagination, and humility as parts of their expeditionary approach. We must respect and celebrate the deep human need to explore and be surprised.

Given that the IOS dwarfs the engineered world we’ve created, we’ll need to be selective in how we approach the challenge. Judgment and insight are needed, and multiscale computer models offer one way to do this.

Models incorporate a level of abstraction appropriate to a given problem, and help extract insight from complexity. As an example, current trends in “edge and fog computing” in the built environment allow companies like Amazon to use “big data analytics” to estimate when a supply chain link is at risk, providing continuous performance, reliability, and end user satisfaction.

In bioscience and medicine, we’re still not able to predict the time of failure (organ disease or a person’s death), nor can we yet simply “repair and replace” with natural components. Forward-looking companies such as Intrexon and others are already producing new innovations based on biological information flows.

The heralded “many-to-many” communication represented by Facebook, Twitter and other recent developments complement older “one-to-many” control systems in communications and other organizational and business systems. In the IOS, cell-to-cell and species-to-species information flows encompass both - and do it better. Both kinds of information flow are important in living systems – our hearts beat reliably for up to a hundred years because of a one-to-many kind of communication by pacemaker cells. There is massive natural gene flow among multiple species. Many Fortune 500 companies are now re-imagining their internal structures as “living entities” with the desirable, but rarely realized, attributes of adaptability, creativity, and innovation, based on complex peer-to-peer interactions.

Even the radical video game “No Man’s Sky” offers a procedurally-generated universe of only about 10^9 unique planets for the player to explore … a finite artifact of state-of-the-art human engineering compared with the deep pool of living systems on earth. A profound difference for the IOS is that we won’t just shut down the server when only 0.1% of the species on earth have been explored. Life will evolve and go on.

Important attributes of living systems such as adaptation during life, evolution across generations, human health and disease, social dynamics, and inter-species interactions (including human-induced changes to the environment and climate) all depend on biological information flows. Bio-geoengineering, which may now be critical to save the planet from global warming, depends on biological information flows.

The Fifth Revolution is upon us, and there will be room for individual creatives, institutions, businesses, and governments to navigate among the trillions of possibilities and realize audacious dreams.

-- Tom Skalak, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group