Smaller, Cheaper, More Powerful

March 12, 2010

By way of In the Pipeline, I ran across Rob Carlson's description of a garage screening lab in Silicon Valley:

I spent most of one Saturday hanging out at a garage biology lab in Silicon Valley. When I walked in the door, I was impressed by the sophistication of the set-up. The main project is screening for anti-cancer compounds (though it wasn't clear to me whether this meant small molecules or biologics), and the people involved have skillzzz and an accumulation of used/surplus equipment to accomplish whatever they want; two clean/cell-culture hoods, two biorobots (one of which is being reverse engineered), incubators, plate readers, and all the other doodads you might need. They aren't messing around. I didn't get into the details of the project, but the combination of equipment, pedigree, and short conversations with the participants told me all I needed to know. ...

Don't get me wrong. This is cool - very cool. The problem is that this approach doesn't scale and never will.

The year is 1975. The place: Cupertino, California. We're in a garage where a much younger Steve Wozniak has filled the place with surplus mainframe computer equipment he got for free from a friend. Is Steve going to have a whole bunch of fun and do insanely cool things? You bet. Is he going to change the world? Nope.

I'll let Woz speak for himself about what really changed everything:

Now, I still was in this mode where I had to build everything for free. Then I discovered that microprocessors had come out. I had sort of slipped out of the electronics world, out of the computer world, due to working in calculators at Hewlett-Packard. All of a sudden I discovered these microprocessors. What are they? Id didn't quite understand it fully, so I took a datasheet home. ...

I was embarrassed because the world had somehow jumped ahead of me - they had come out with cheap microcomputers based around microprocessors and I hadn't heard of it and I hadn't been a part of it.

Smaller, cheaper, more powerful - in that order. These are the things turned a bunch of hackers into millionaires. It's what put a computer on every desktop. It's also what toppled titans of industry and drove highly respected companies into the ground.

If anything will be capable of changing the way that chemical and biological research gets done, fundamentally changing the way drugs get discovered and new materials get developed, it will be three things: smaller, cheaper and more powerful.