Humans may not yet have the opportunity to be immortal, but we’re well on our way to immortalizing our genes. In 2013, scientists discovered a way to store genetic data in an app. Another group of researchers suggested that it may be possible to store man-made data in human genes. Now, one project called Genecoin proposes that it can encrypt your genetic data on bitcoins.
There are many reasons to be skeptical about Genecoin. The first, and most basic reason, is that, while Genecoin has received a fair amount of press, it’s not an official venture or investor-backed corporation. It’s a query put forth by a group of “young computer scientists in the Northeast with an interest in Bitcoin,” I learned through an e-mail exchange with Genecoin. And, though the FAQs claim to provide a service, the project has no names publicly attached to it, and no pricetags associated with the services it hopes to offer. When I e-mailed about scheduling a phone interview, someone responded under the pseudonym “Hello Genecoin” to say that the site is soliciting interviews via e-mail only. They’re “remaining anonymous, given the controversial nature of the idea.”
Regardless of the skepticism around Genecoin, it has received considerable press, and that’s because, even if the Genecoin service is fake, the base hypothesis it proposes is real. For added insight, I talked to Yush Gupta, co-founder and CTO of bitcoin startup LibertyX in Boston. Full disclosure: Yush is my brother. He said that while Genecoin’s pitch of cryptocurrency-backed human DNA may have a gimmick-y meme-like feel, technologically speaking, it’s viable.
Bitcoin tracks transactions with a public, timestamped record that’s unalterable, creating a public ledger. The potential for the public ledger system is largely untapped by the current bitcoin community. One day, people might be able to alter the code slightly to make real-time reporting systems for whistle-blowers, a report log of crimes, or a legal will system, Yush posits — or, in the case of Genecoin, encrypt our DNA.
But why on Earth would anyone want to do that? Genecoin explained to me:
Embedding DNA in cryptocurrency is no joke. We understand that Genecoin might sound ridiculous to some people, but genetic preservation has always been integral to human culture. We’re thinking about how that evolves in the network age. Clearly, biological data is headed to the internet. Apple is about to release a watch that puts your heartbeat on the network. Genecoin isn’t so different. We’re interested in new ways that humans and networks can intermix.
Indeed, just a week after the Genecoin site launched, Google announced that it will soon store your genome on the internet for $25 a year. One bioinformatics company talked about the social application to Engadget:
“Our bird’s eye view is that if I were to get lung cancer in the future, doctors are going to sequence my genome and my tumor’s genome, and then query them against a database of 50 million other genomes,” explained Deniz Kural, whose company, Seven Bridges, stores genome data with Amazon’s cloud system. “The result will be ‘Hey, here’s the drug that will work best for you.’
When Google proposes it, storing your genetic data doesn’t sound quite so crazy, but that’s where it probably should elicit a strong reaction. Google, the “evil” company, has an implicit goal to systematize the world’s information. If Google has your genome, you can bet that the monolith will use it to make sense of other information it has on you.
“Is it any surprise that Google wants your genetic data?” Genecoin wrote to me in response, continuing:
They already have half a billion users feeding them language through Gmail. 10+ billion search queries a month. They’ve scanned every book. Mapped every street. They have military-funded quadruped robots. They buy every promising new machine learning company that comes out, and have built a brain that taught itself to recognize cats. Yet people think we’re strange! Quite an AI they’re summoning. Google is the state, end of story.
Genecoin doesn’t want your data. We help you preserve an encrypted version of your DNA in a planet-wide decentralized network. Genecoin is toward a 21st century citizenship. Google is toward a serfdom.
But it’s hard to take seriously when, rather than highlighting the social benefits of its product or citing infographics and statistics to further its cause, Genecoin makes its case with a jokey list of fake testimonials:
One of its applications invokes the meme-y, albeit real, Dogecoin:
Once you’re in with Genecoin, we recommend that you use your genome as seed data to create your own altcoin. Services will soon let people create their own alternative cryptocurrencies with a single click of a mouse. Altcoins will function like apps or even just personal brands. In the near future, every person will have their own altcoin and small community using it. With Genecoin, your personal brand can become a mechanism for propagating your genetic material.
The cavalier presentation of an on-the-surface absurd idea, confusion about whether this is a functional service or not; its unfathomably expansive and unspecified scope (which includes creating a bot that can “discover new blockchain technology and embed your genetic material wherever possible”); and the inexplicable distance between it and its creators, have led some to conclude that Genecoin is an elaborate inside joke by bitcoin nerds. The Huffington Post’s Thomas Tamblyn writes that the idea “sounds ludicrous — which means it’s either the work of some maniacal geniuses OR it’s another one of those slow-burning PR stunts for a film that won’t appear for five years.” Tech-focused Tumblr Futurescope writes, “Not sure if spoof, design fiction or real product,” while on Twitter, tech journalist Evgeny Morozov dismissed it entirely, saying, “You know we’ve reached ‘Peak Innovation’ when startups are no longer distinguishable from spoofs. Like, what is this?”
Is Genecoin a perverted joke exploiting our technological ignorance and startup fever, or is it a fledgling company on the cusp of a life-altering technology? We don’t know, and — kudos to its creators — because that in itself is rather amusing.
(Photo: BTC Keychain)