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01-02-2011 | Original Article | Issue 1/2011

AI & SOCIETY 1/2011

On the industrialisation of biology

Journal:
AI & SOCIETY > Issue 1/2011
Author:
Peter Wellstead
Important notes
This work was supported by Science Foundation Ireland under grant 03/RP1/I382.

Abstract

The times required to develop new drugs is growing continuously and most drugs fail in the development process because we lack the detailed knowledge of biology and physiology needed to understand the result of a proposed treatment. The problem is one of complexity—we do not know the full complexity of living organisms, neither does traditional biology have the language to capture and integrate complexity. As a result, the life sciences are undergoing a period of radical change as the technological and mathematical methods developed for the analysis of physical sciences are being adapted for use in understanding living systems. This introduction of quantitative mathematical methods to represent and understand a previously descriptive subject resembles the Newtonian revolution in physics and its subsequent impact upon industry and manufacture. And just as in the post-Newtonian developments, the new ways are being resisted as the traditional reductionist biologists argue against a system level analysis. The comparison between the industrial revolution and the emerging revolution in life sciences is so strong that it can be usefully employed to explain the current process—the industrialisation of biology—in a way that informs the traditionalist movement. In particular, we draw upon ideas from innovation cycles and the staging of change in science and industry to clarify the current change processes in life science. Using specific examples in technology development we outline lessons that can be learnt in order to smooth the process of change and make it a harmonious one, rather than one of conflict.

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