Monthly Archives: June 2013

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Would You Want to Know How You Will Die?

Would you want to know how you will die? Usually when this is a movie plot point, the protagonist dies by some very specific method that he tries to avoid and in doing so inevitably causes to happen. And you walk out of the theater laughing at some message about fate. But this is real life, and barring a freak car accident, I will be able to face this exact question for perhaps the first time in history.

I will learn how I am going to die.

How am I going to get this information? Well, I took part in a study a few months ago where the had a bunch of people spit in tubes, sequenced their DNA, and then will (essentially) plot everyone’s genetic code against their SAT scores. The goal of the project is to find the genetic markers for intelligence. On my end, as compensation for participating, they are sending me all the genetic data they collected from my spit sample for free, and it arrives in a week or so. Essentially, I get to be one of the first people to see their own genetic code and know, on a basic biological level, who I really am. I get to be genotyped.

What is genotyping? Well it isn’t a sequence of my entire DNA. Remember the oft-quoted statistic of how humans’ and chimpanzees’ DNA are 98.5% the same? Well, the genetic similarity between different humans is around 99.9%, and it turns out that ignoring the bulk of a person’s genetic code and focusing in on the 0.1% that varies from person to person is a lot cheaper, faster, and nearly as meaningful as sequencing the whole thing. Eventually, in the future, we will have cheap whole-genome sequencing, but right now this partial sequencing is almost as good. So that’s what genotyping is – looking at the 0.1% of genes that make someone unique.

Colored picture of the human karyotype (all 23 chromosomes)

There’s a host of benefits to this, such as learning your true ancestry, seeing if you have any cool rare mutations, and picking out any medications you are likely to have a bad reaction to. But the most useful outcome of this is learning what diseases I am predisposed to. WebMD tells me that the risk for type 2 diabetes is 30-70% genetic, 20% of all Alzheimer’s cases have genetic roots, and 17% of all the risk of heart disease (my grandfather has a pacemaker) comes from one’s DNA. There are tools out there that run your genes through Bayesian statistical analysis to spit out how much a particular gene raises your risk factors for this or that disease, and the first thing I’m doing when I get my own genetic data is going to one of them and plugging it in.

Of course, the answer to ‘do I want to know’, is clearly and unequivocally, ‘yes‘. And it should be for you too. Because the way you and I are going to die is not going to be through some mystical prophecy where an evil rival meets us in a duel where only one can survive. It is going to be, very likely, something common such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, or a stroke. (Smoking and obesity top the list if you like cigarettes or are fat.) And thankfully for me and my evil rival, these are all diseases where we know how to reduce risk. By taking the results from my genotyping and seeing my comparative likelihood for various diseases, I will be able to target the ones I am most likely to die from and start developing habits that will reduce my chance of having them. I’m still young, and if I start now, I fully expect to be able to add several long years to my life. And who wouldn’t want that?

Life expectancy in the US, 1900-2009

The great thing is, I’m not the only one who will benefit from this information. Genetics being genetics, my family will be able to use this same data. The rule of thumb is, every step away from yourself halves the likelihood that a family member shares one of your genes. So, my parents, sister, (future) children, and dad’s twin all have a 50% chance of having a particular one of my genes. My grandparents, biological aunts and uncles, and father’s twin’s daughters all have a 25% chance of having a particular gene of mine, and my great grandparents and first cousins have a 12.5% chance. So when I get this data back, I will share it with the family and hopefully they can use it as a guideline for being healthier and living longer in their own lives. I don’t want to have to see someone leave a minute before they have to.

For the rest of you, getting genotyped is cheap. 23andMe is the leading provider and charges only $99, with the cost dropping every year (there are other options as well). Honestly, this is an absolute no-brainer, for the value of the personal information you get out of it, and with a completely affiliate-free voice I can’t recommend another service more highly. The information is only going to get more useful too, as more research into various genes is done and doctors start to include personalized medicine into their treatments and diagnosis. Seriously, go do this. Odds are it will save your life.

I’ll post again later this week when I find out some of my more interesting and unique genes. Keep your eyes open!

Edit 7/10: Got an email from BGI saying there were some delays and I should expect the results in July. I’ll update when I get them.


Predicting the Future: Cool Tech and College Debt

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”  – US Secretary of Education

For my generation, when the cost of college compared to yearly income is twice that of our parents and choosing to get a degree is even more of a gamble than ever, the idea that the knowledge we are learning may not be at all relevant with the knowledge we’ll need is absolutely frightening. It’s part of why I chose a very broad engineering field (Mechanical Engineering), because I felt and still feel that too specialized of a degree is a long-term death sentence.

But this post isn’t to rant about the rising cost of college and the ever-shrinking job market. That’s been covered plenty. This post is to see, when can I do about it? How do I target areas that will be useful in the future, even if they aren’t now?

The answer lies in a report I recently stumbled across put out by the McKinsey Global Institute, titled, “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy.” Not the sexiest name, I know, but it’s very easily digestible and if you want to get a taste of where the world is going in the next 12 years, please do yourself the favor of skipping the rest of this post and just read the whole thing. (Click here [pdf] to download it).

To get straight to it, here is their list of technologies that by 2025 will drive the economy and change the world as we know it …

  1. Mobile Internet
  2. Automation of Knowledge Work
  3. Internet of Things
  4. Cloud Technology
  5. Advanced Robotics
  6. Autonomous Vehicles
  7. Next-generation Genomics
  8. Energy Storage
  9. 3D Printing
  10. Advanced Materials
  11. Advance Oil and Gas Extraction
  12. Renewable Energy

… and further technologies that will reach maturation soon after:

  1. Next-Generation Nuclear Fission
  2. Nuclear Fusion
  3. Carbon Sequestration
  4. Advanced Water Purification
  5. Quantum Computing
  6. Private Space Flight
  7. OLED Lighting
  8. Wireless Charging
  9. Flexible Displays
  10. 3D Displays

The good news is, there’s a lot of really cool technology here. As an engineer, I’ll likely get to work on building one or more of these and it means that if I can start targeting these areas now I’ll be in very high demand. (My personal target at the moment – private space flight. Seriously, how awesome is that?) But it also means lots of money for those businessmen who are able to anticipate and leverage these new technologies, as well as good work for the lawyers who will have to craft intelligent policy to address issues that will arise.

The bad news is if you’re planning on being a secretary, truck driver, or are uneducated. The jobs for the two former are going to quickly disappear, and for the latter have already gone. The days of huge portions of the population being able to work a living wage straight out of high school are far in the past. Factory jobs are being automated and the ones that aren’t are done much more cheaply by a rising Asian middle class who is desperate for that some work. Income inequality in the US will rise higher between the those who have skills in this new economic landscape and those who do not. The whole trick here is to be on the skilled side.

For the many artists, musicians, writers, and actors I know, the good news is that this whole march of technology largely doesn’t affect your professions. For you, it is the same timeless struggle of trying to make a name for yourselves in the cutthroat and unstable environment of the entertainment industry. Best of luck guys, I don’t know how you do it.

Who is the future look brightest for? Those who instead of finding a job, make their own: innovators and entrepreneurs. These new technologies drastically reduce the cost and time investment needed to conceive, prototype, and scale up a new idea or product. The rewards for successful entrepreneurs are potentially huge, and the rising world of VC’s and angel investors makes it ever more possible. Beware, however, the current app bubble we’re in.

So there you have it, my plan for escaping the crushing debt of student loans after I graduate: Make myself useful in the planning and execution of technologies that are going to change the world. I suggest you all do the same.