Digital gene technology

Book review: ‘Virtual You’ by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield

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An avalanche of data, coupled with sheer computing power, is poised to revolutionise our understanding of biology.

It will be second nature to the engineering mindset that digital twins, as Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield point out in their introduction to ‘Virtual You: How Building Your Digital Twin Will Revolutionize Medicine and Change Your Life’ (Princeton University Press, £25, ISBN 9780691223278) “have been used to help create wind turbines, oil rigs, cars, jet engines, aircraft, spacecraft and more besides.”

What might not be so obvious is that, thanks to the data revolution in biology, digital twins are successfully operating in the field of medicine. The reason for this assumption, says Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan in his foreword to this immensely thought-provoking book, is that while we’re used to thinking of physics and chemistry as disciplines which lend themselves to predictive simulations, biology sits in our mindset as “largely observational and empirical.”

Maybe it’s too soon to get excited about having individualised virtual twins of our entire bodies – and our authors seem to draw the line at what can be accomplished digitally in the realms of recreating human consciousness – but we live in an age in which supercomputers can replicate human biology, from cells and tissues to organs. These virtual copies will bring in an era of personalised medicine, in which your digital twin will help to predict your risk of disease, participate in virtual drug trials, and assist in the recommendation of diet and lifestyle changes, all while helping to identify therapies to improve overall health and extend lifespan.

Thanks to the torrent of biomedical data available today, say our authors, “along with ever more powerful theory and computation, we believe simulations will revolutionise biology just as much as they have transformed meteorology.” On the other side of the coin, they quote geneticist Sir Paul Nurse – Nobel Prize winner and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute – who has declared himself “weary” of reading about technology being used to make measurements that come to “barely any significant conclusions.”

The message is clear: biology is different to other sciences, meaning that it may not respond so neatly to the algorithm meat-grinder treatment, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how brilliant the science involved. Despite which, “there is absolutely every reason to believe that we should be able to understand a particular scientific aspect of how an organism works and capture that insight in the form of mathematics.”

One of the best things about ‘Virtual You’ is that if you ever doubted on what scale of complexity the digitally twinning of humans operates, you’ll doubt no more. And while there is great cause for optimism, we should be cautious of putting a date on any future milestones because, as we saw with artificial intelligence back in the 1970s, when it comes to technology revolutions, we overestimate their short-term impact while paradoxically underestimating their long-term potential to fundamentally change the way our lives can be changed for the better. Perhaps with ‘Virtual You’, what we are seeing is the same trajectory.

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