In Jan 2017 I was contacted by a curator of the TEDGlobal 2017 and asked if I would like to give a talk. To be read with the slides (which have quotes from Neuromancer).
“We can program a computer to do anything. What if we had the same power over the molecules of our bodies? Let’s imagine how this could change our lives.
For example… this version of the scenario .
Adam and Eve meet at a party. She likes him. Her sniffer ring can sense Adam’s biomolecules floating in the air between them. One of them triggers a warning. Eve forwards the warning to Adam’s phone.
Back home, Adam files a bug report with his internet slash health provider. The bug report contains his biological ID and the DNA code received by the warning message.
The bug report is opened.
The ID and DNA code are converted to a digital chemistry. Technical staff manipulate this chemistry, as hackers about to debug a program in Neuromancer style.
“still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void”
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Things like making lists, just, fold up inside themselves. Come out the other way around. Crazy things.”
Pseudo — William Gibson
They find a digital molecule which solves Adam’s problem. A medicine. They convert the solution back to a DNA code which they send to Adam’s router.
The router can turn DNA code back into real biomolecules. Why? It’s a Venter 9000 digital-to-biological converter. Version one looks like this .
Is a bit larger than a router, for the moment. But, in few years, the 9000 version will be in everybody’s home.
The router emits these biomolecules into Adam’s bedroom. They enter the body and so the bug report is solved, the medicine is delivered and Adam is in perfect health again.
Can we really do this?
I think so, there are 3 steps to make.
Step 1. Build a digital chemistry which we can program. In a digital chemistry data and programs are all graph like structures, digital molecules which “fold up inside themselves and come out the other way around” only they do it randomly, like in real chemistry.
We would create and manipulate digital molecules as if we write programs made from a very few elementary bricks. Then we could simulate their behaviour on a computer, to be sure they work right.
Step 2. Use Nature to simulate this digital chemistry. There’s no computer as powerful as Nature, let’s use it. Find a digital-to-biological dictionary from the elementary bricks of the digital chemistry to real biomolecular bricks.
Step 3. Build digital-to-biological converters and biological-to-digital sensors. Craig Venter gave us the first generic DBC converter. Sensors as performant as Eve’s sniffer ring, as a part of the Internet of Things, are possible.
OK, so the program is simple. Let’s do it right away!
Well, I’m not a chemist, I’m a mathematician and I built a digital chemistry which does work like real chemistry. It is indeed inspired from stuff related to Lisp and Haskell (but goes in wild directions). Is called chemlambda , is an Open Science project and I hope it can be used in reality.
Molecules in chemlambda are graphs made by colored nodes and links between them. The chemical reactions are done by enzymes rewiring small patterns in these graphs.
Chemlambda is Turing universal, meaning that you can translate any computer program into one of these molecules and execute it via random digital chemical reactions.
In my simulations I used things like the Ackermann function or the factorial, but think: any program! You could do anything with the Nature’s computer.
More general, going far outside the small world of computer programs interesting for the neighbourhood programmer, you could design molecules from first principles.
Instead of shooting in the dark by doing many experiments with real world molecules, kind of like a barbarian who finds new uses for the tiny things discovered in a clock workshop, instead of this you could design what you need, then turn it into reality.
Colonize Mars? Deposit all Netflix shows in lichen spores?
Some frightening, of course.
But: understand life at molecular level? What a worthy goal. This may (or may not) help.
If the step 2 is realized, here’s the bottleneck.
I am very willing to try the step 2 of the program. I think this can be done by a combination of clever searches in available chemical databases and collaborative work.
After all, chemlambda it’s an Open Science project. Means that it may scale, with chance.”
 Digital-to-biological converter for on-demand production of biologics, Kent S Boles, Krishna Kannan, John Gill, Martina Felderman, Heather Gouvis, Bolyn Hubby, Kurt I Kamrud, J Craig Venter and Daniel G Gibson
see also Motherboard article https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/59zj9b/craig-venters-digital-to-biological-converter-is-real
 The chemlambda repository README is the entry point to the project.
 Internet of Smells, http://telegra.ph/Internet-of-Smells-04-26
…. so that was the talk proposal.
I was very surprised because I had split feelings:
(positive) this could boost even more the interest in my proposal of molecular computers based on chemical reactions which mimic interaction nets rewrites
(negative) this is a subject which is fundamental science with possible worrying consequences,
(positive) but maybe I could talk about my personal experience with Open Science?
(negative) definitely not the touchy-feely kind, there’s nothing to be happy about yet, the fight for OS is tough and it continues,
so I agreed.
In May 2017 I was announced that indeed I’ll talk at the TED event. Yay, because since January I realised I could use this talk for several good purposes. Something fishy though, my feelings are complex, you see? there was this question in the back of my head: OK so this is the best public talks organization. We are in 2017. They need 4 months to start organizing? Hm, OK.
And from that point on I felt into a bureaucracy nightmare.
They baptized me BULIGIA for some time, even if my google mail is Marius.Buliga@gmail.com. They sent me official invitations and other stuff… To me? nah, to BULIGIA. I sent them something like 5-6 polite mails until they finally figured out what’s wrong.
I was joking with my friends: maybe they think I’m Italian. Marius Buligia! Somebody said that “buligia” sounds like the name of a disease. So I’m going to spread the buligia disease in the fancy circles of TED. Funny! So be it.
Then they told me that I’ll have 6 min. … right, what can I do with less than 900 words? I can talk about Open Science. I quickly wrote a draft, give it the name ringo.txt 😉 and sent them.
This draft is now available as Open Science is RWX science. A quote from the original:
No, they wanted me to talk about chemlambda. Moreover (and this was one expression they kept repeating, Borg like) GitHub, Figshare, micromanagement, etc are “insider words”. Don’t use insider words.
Well, this is strange because one thing which made me very interested into this talk was the audience. You see, apparently the best thing about a main TED event is the audience in the room. I could see that they are in one of these categories: founders of the main web or computers services, rich from less well known but clever businesses involving computers, representing investment funds, NY or Silicon Valley intellectuals, others in proportion of 10 percents. (And the speakers.)
So maybe a regular editor thinks that it reaches a bigger audience if the talk is made for people using 1500 words, drooling over their keyboard while they look at the talk with empty eyes.
Does not apply here, right?
Moreover the bigger audience is not reached, because presently there are huge audiences for anything interesting. There are so many people on the Net today that you don’t have to go to the barely human level to attract them. No public talks show has a 2 billion audience. If they have several million people interested in a talk, that’s great. Or there are always several million intelligent people interested in a public talk on science, computing, biology, whatever, which are bored to death by the stupidity of the generic shows proposed by the regular media.
OK, so what can I do with less than 900 words to explain chemlambda? Images, of course 🙂
I proposed them a choice between a second version of the script (more chemlambda, less Open Science) and a more bold one based on the Internet of Smells story.
They picked the first choice and after talking with the science editor (who’s a nice guy), after encountering some more “insider words” remarks, I said what the heck and just sent them a script based on the Internet of Smells.
They liked it a lot! It is basically what became “Chemlambda for the people”.
Great! This took them almost 2 months. (The year is 2017.)
I was very flexible concerning their suggestions not because I was forced to, but because I wanted to take all this as a challenge and also to learn from this interaction.
I prepared the slides, sent them and waited for the first rehearsal. At this point they had my script, which they liked, and my slides, html with high res movies and animations included.
They proposed to use for the rehearsal something professional (they said), won’t give the name.
Then I had a first rehearsal with the TED team, where they have not used my slides. They asked me to use screencapture from my laptop, I couldn’t see what they see. I could barely hear them (and see them) but I imagined that they know what they do.
For those quick to point out that maybe the connection was bad because I was in Romania, think again. Romania, and especially Bucharest, is one of those little places in the world with one of the top speed web connections. Moreover, many people whom I talk to by video know that we can have a decent and alive exchange even if I’m based in Romania. So leave your stupid racism at the door please and continue.
I was very worried inside, something is wrong. I was screaming to them and speaking very rarely, because the conditions I experienced were like wind howling during a storm.
The movies and animations I prepared and they had, but not used them? I didn’t know then, but learned later that the screencast turned into random renderings at the frequency of 1/s.
Anyway, after this professional rehearsal they were not happy to learn that I’ll be away for 2 weeks. People with small kids know that you have to make reservations months before the vacation.
Next day I received the edited side of the transmission (so I could see what they saw, hear what they heard).
Finally, just before leaving for the vacation I had a (normal, not professional) video talk with the main curator and the scientific editor where they said that there’s not enough time to prepare the talk more and they decided to not let me talk. But I still participate at the event, in the public.
That hurt! For those who don’t know me, I’m a professional mathematician. I gave hundreds of public talks, most of them in English or French, I gave university courses, so I definitely never had a problem with public speaking. My pride is hurt!
Nevermind, is their show I said. I’ll think about coming and announce them. Them I mailed them and refused to come, just to be in the public.
During the vacation I started to have doubts about all this. Wait a moment, that was not a rehearsal, that was a set up, or it looked like that. Or maybe is my pride, again? Hm…
I was still receiving their general announcements and I saw they made public the list of speakers.
I did not wanted to link to their site, for privacy reasons, but I could still use a search engine. Surprise! I appear as a speaker on CNN. What’s this?
I went to the CNN site and I was not there. However, Google caches the page seen by the crawler. I got it and … I was there. For some time, then the page was edited.
I saved the cached page. Photos, like this one
OK, so they made a mistake, right? They just sent to CNN the list of speakers (after they took me off), but they forgot to take me off from that list.
Back home I opened the cached html of the CNN page and look closer. Do you notice something weird here?
Yes, I appear twice, haha. At the position 33 and then 44.
OK, mistakes are done all the time, even by the most professional teams. Forget about it. Let’s stop with the thinking about wtf was all this.
Yesterday, Aug 5, more than 2 weeks after they announced the speakers, I visited the Tedglobal2017 site.
Somebody familiar was looking at me. Yeah, that guy, second row in the middle!
Yep, that’s me!