Embrace the chaos!

18 Nov
Published by gtaylor

A Greek friend of mine once told me he didn't believe in voting. He said that the Greeks invented democracy but had evolved past it to chaos. At the time, I thought he was just being eccentric and didn't push him on the subject. However the statement was odd enough to stick in my brain. After all, Petros doesn't say things just to hear himself talk; he's usually thought long and hard about such things before saying them. As I've been contemplating how to find cures to diseases more quikly, I've decided that chaos is the next evolved state of scientific and medical research and is what we should help unleash to both find cures more quickly as well as lower the cost of discovery.

When I say Chaos, I'm not talking about a pure state of disorder; rather, I'm talking about the “Chaos Theory” which is really about finding the underlying order in an apparently random system. Think of Darwin's Origin of Species. Species mate and genes are randomly combined. Yet the species evolves because only the fittest survive to mate in the first place. It is only in this non-controlled, chaotic environment that evolution takes place. As Dr. Ian Malcolm, a fictitious mathematician and advocate of The Chaos Theory, said in Jurassic Park, “Nature will find a way.” I'm sure pure mathematicians would scoff at my pop interpretation to chaos. Regardless, I'm extending these concepts to explain what I see happening today in the software market and what I see as a new potential for medical research.

The Internet is the Petri dish; it is an electronic chaotic system with virtually no rules. Anybody can buy a domain name and post virtually any content they want to on the Internet. It allows huge numbers of people and systems, regardless of geography, to work together and try one thing after another. Things that work prosper; things that don't work fail. The speed at which new concepts can be tried has been greatly accelerated and new concepts are evolving daily. Effectively, power has taken from the hands of the few and is re-distributed back to the masses.

Social software, an evolving new software concept, exploits this chaotic redistribution of power to create new possibilities. For example, Connotea is a community driven (social) bookmarks manager for scientific information. It allows me to see the most popular bookmarks categorized by topics. And since Connotea is primarily used by scientists, it helps me to stay at least buzz-word compliant for what's happening in the scientific community. The categorization of these bookmarks is also performed by those in the community and has helped spark yet another social software concept called “folksonomy”. The wisdom of folksonomy flies in the face of faceted classification systems such as the dewey decimal system or the biological classification of living thigs. It allows the community to effectively vote on the taxonomy that is used to categorize things. The resulting classification is not based on pure logic, but rather the imperfect collective mental model of the masses. Since people, not machines, are the users of these systems, it's more effective.

This blog is yet another example of chaos. Today, there are over 7 million known blogs, and the blog counting utilities are discovering over 30,000 blogs daily. Prior to the Internet we only had the elite media as our source for news. Today anybody can write; but only the most interesting blogs are read and have impact. Reader comments pounce on bad ideas. Other blogs are written either echoing or defeating the idea. Blogs are now powerful enough to take down journalist icons such as Dan Rather when they slip up. Now that's power to the people.

Wiki is an even more extreme concept than blogs. Not only can anybody post content anybody can edit and correct the content. The Wiki based online encyclopedia Wikipedia is awesome. You'll notice I use it extensively to link readers to further explanations of important concepts. The online community evolves the postings. Content is kept current and if somebody makes a bad edit, it is quickly fixed. These are the same concepts fueling open source. Proponents of open source believe that open source programs have fewer bugs because the source code can be seen and fixed by anyone. Additionally, programmers are less likely to post mediocre solutions because they don't want to be criticized by their peers. In fact, they're more likely to work extra hard to create an elegant solution that will last.

I sincerely hope that we can carry these concepts over to medical research. I fully believe that scientists want to do great things for society. I also believe that when we connect people and when they share ideas and debate openly, that the strongest ideas will survive and we will find solutions more quickly. This is what has inspired me to start The Synaptic Leap. I hope to start a revolution for scientific and medical research. We'll start with malaria, where the need for advancement is very high. And if the concepts are good, this approach to medical research will survive and spread.

Other Links of Interest: