So today brings news that Microsoft is working on curing cancer in the next five or ten years. That, I’m sure, will come as a relief, especially to those people who’ve had the company’s software crash on them recently. For some reason, the UK press is especially susceptible to Amazing Cancer Cure stories (and to Amazing Alzheimer’s Cure stories, too, for that matter) so you get coverage like this in the relatively sober pages of the Telegraph:
Microsoft has vowed to “solve the problem of cancer” within a decade by using ground-breaking computer science to crack the code of diseased cells so they can be reprogrammed back to a healthy state.
In a dramatic change of direction for the technology giant, the company has assembled a “small army” of the world’s best biologists, programmers and engineers who are tackling cancer as if it were a bug in a computer system.
. . .The programming principles and tools group has already developed software that mimics the healthy behavior of a cell, so that it can be compared to that of a diseased cell, to work out where the problem occurred and how it can be fixed.”
Have they now? It’s hard to tell from the article how much of this is hype from Microsoft and how much was added in the reporting. So I turned to a story at Wired UK, which features many of the same word-for-word quotes as the Telegraph piece, and saw this:
Andrew Phillips, head of the biological computation research group at the Cambridge Lab said researchers benefit from Microsoft’s history as a software innovator.
“We can use methods that we’ve developed for programming computers to program biology, and then unlock even more applications and even better treatments,” he said.
Phillips is working to create a molecular computer that could be put inside a cell to monitor for disease. If the sensor detected a disease, such as cancer, it would activate a response to fight it.
Right. What about something on this side of the Atlantic? Here’s CNN Money, and I don’t think the promises are getting dialed down much:
Researchers at Microsoft’s lab in Cambridge, England, are trying to map the “code” of the disease, hoping that once they understand how the problem occurs, they’d be able to re-program cancer cells into healthy cells.
Jasmin Fisher, who is a senior researcher at the lab and also a professor at the biochemistry department at Cambridge University, said she and her colleagues are trying to think about cancer in the same way computer scientists think about computer programs.
“If you can figure out how to build these programs, and then you can debug them, it’s a solved problem,” she said.
Well, I can’t argue with that last part – if you can figure out what’s going wrong, and then figure out how to fix it, then you have indeed solved the problem. Where I part company with the Microsoft press coverage is the idea that it’s going to be as straightforward as writing and debugging code. And yes, I realize that writing good code (and chasing down the inevitable bugs in it) is actually hard work. But guess what, folks? Trying to figure out cell biology is even harder.
I have beaten on this theme many times on the blog, so for those who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, let me refer you to this post and the links in it. Put shortly – and these sorts of stories tend to put actual oncology researchers in a pretty short mood – the cell/computer analogy is too facile to be useful. And that goes, with chocolate sprinkles on it, for all the subsidiary analogies, such as DNA/source code, disease/bug, etc. One one level, these things do sort of fit, but it’s not a level that you can get much use out of. DNA is much, much messier than any usable code ever written, and it’s messier on several different levels and in a lot of different ways. These (which include the complications of transcriptional regulation, post-transcriptional modification, epigenetic factors, repair mechanisms and mutation rates, and much, much, more), have no good analogies (especially when taken together) in coding. And these DNA-level concerns are only the beginning! That’s where you start working on an actual therapy; that’s what we call “Target ID”, and it’s way, way back in the process of finding a drug. So many complications await you after that – you can easily spend your entire working life on them, and many of us have.
And that’s why many of us who have actually been working on diseases like cancer get a little testy when we see folks from computer science coming in with this “Gosh darn it fellows, do I have to do everything myself?” attitude. Years of working with (human-designed) hardware running (human-written) code have given many people in that field what I think is an exaggerated idea of human capabilities (at least as they are right now). When you can write code that gets used by hundreds of millions of people in their daily lives, it’s understandable to think that you’re able to just reach in and change reality by sheer braininess and force of will. Unfortunately the world of code and computational hardware, as important, useful, and lucrative as it is, is just a sandbox compared to the real physical universe, of which living creatures are just a tiny little part. But biology has no debugging programs, no annotations, no manuals. It wasn’t written by humans – in fact, as far as we know, it wasn’t written by anyone at all, it “just grew” in a process that has no good counterpart to the ways that humans generally get things done.
I like borrowing examples from old science fiction stories, and William Gibson’s early work is, I suppose, heading into that category by now. Here are a couple of characters (well, one human one and one recorded human personality) in Neuromancer discussing their dealings with a (malevolent?) artificial intelligence:
“Motive,” the construct said. “Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?”
“Well, yeah, obviously.”
“Nope. I mean, it’s not human. And you can’t get a handle on it. Me, I’m not human either, but I respond like one. See?”
“Wait a sec,” Case said. “Are you sentient, or not?”
“Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I’m really just a bunch of ROM. It’s one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess….” The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case’s spine. “But I ain’t likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain’t no way human.”
Exactly. The only quote by the Roman poet Terence that I have at the ready is the one that translates as “I am human; nothing human is alien to me”. Well, this may sound odd to the group at Microsoft, but cell biology is alien to you. It’s alien to all of us. We’re not even near understanding what’s going on in normal cells or cancerous ones, so giving people the impression that you’ve already simulated everything important and you’re busy “debugging” it is not only arrogant, it’s close to irresponsible. It’s like those stories about simulating the brain – sure, dude.
If you remove the hubris from the Microsoft announcement, though, which takes sandblasters and water cannons, you get to something that could be interesting. It’s another machine learning approach to biology, from what I can make out, and I’m not opposed in principle to that sort of thing at all. It has to be approached with caution, though, because any application of machine learning to the biology literature has to take into account that a good percentage of that literature is crap, and that negative results (which have great value for these systems) are grievously underrepresented in it as well. I think that machine approaches to understanding biological pathways will, in the end, probably be the way to go, because it’s too complex for us to keep it all straight in our minds (not human!) But we’re not there. There are many, many important things that we simply don’t understand very well, and many others, I’m sure, that we just flat-out don’t even know exist yet. Debug that.
So if Microsoft wants to apply machine learning to cancer biology, I’m all for it. But they should just go and try it and report back when something interesting comes out of it, rather than beginning by making a big noise in the newspapers. You want to cure cancer? Go do it; don’t sit around giving interviews about how you’re going to cure cancer real soon now. I’m sure that someone at the company imagines this as a big blazing publicity sendoff, fireworks and balloons and all the rest of it. But to anyone who works in the field, it’s more like a grenade going off inside a manure pile. Or this. Probably not what they were aiming for.
Update: one of several relevant XKCDs!