Shades of Jurassic Park – for real – a mammoth undertaking

The NYT science section has a story on the possibility – for real – of regenerating an extinct mammoth from DNA in its existing hair.

While the idea fascinates me, what really excites me in this story is references to the speed with which new technologies are developing which seems to be catching even those closely involved in them by surprise. This speed is the major point made by Ray Kurzweil in his book on the Singularity. Look at thsee paragraphs, for example:

There have been several Russian attempts to cultivate eggs from frozen mammoths that look so perfectly preserved in ice. But the perfection is deceiving since the DNA is always degraded and no viable cells remain. Even a genome-based approach would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago and is far from reality even now.

Still, several technical barriers have fallen in surprising ways. One barrier was that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines use tiny pieces as their starting point. Dr. Schuster’s laboratory has two, known as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

The bottom line is this – technology is on an exponential curve that for thousands of years has been there, but not obvious, because at the start of such a curve it looks linear – like a pretty flat line. But we’re at the “knee” of such a curve, Kurzweil believes, and that’s where it bends and starts heading up extremely fast. What this does is throw all sorts of predictions about the future into a cocked hat because most people simply extrapolate from the current rate of growth and don’t see the exponential curve Kurzweil maintain is there. I think this article is loaded with evidence to support Kurzweil, as is the basic decoding of the human genome which came far, far faster than most predicted.