Hong Qin, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was born in a town on the eastern coast of China not far from the birthplace of Confucius.
The great Chinese philosopher once said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Confucius was probably onto something when he said real knowledge is knowing your limits. Qin (pronounced “chin”) works in a field, computational biology, that’s so intricate that it helps to have an appreciation for the limits of the human brain.
More and more, human researchers such as Qin are humbling themselves and allowing artificial intelligence models and supercomputers do the heavy lifting of scientific discovery.
Qin’s work involves solving the mysteries of aging by searching for patterns in the way human genes work. He does that by using modern tools to examine human genome data from the National Institutes of Health. Put simply, he’s trying to peek inside our biological clock to see how it works.
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According to the National Institutes of Health, “Genome is a fancy word for all your DNA. From potatoes to puppies, all living organisms have their own genome. Each genome contains the information needed to build and maintain that organism throughout its life.”
If that all sounds bewildering, it can be. But it’s also thrilling.
One day, using the work of Qin and others like him, technology might be able to predict your death date with almost God-like precision and create personalized medications to treat your illnesses.
Qin uses the work of eye doctors to illustrate that point about personalized medicine.
“When I have to have glasses, doctors measure my eyes and test all different aspects of my vision and then give me the best prescription for glasses,” said the 54-year-old researcher, who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. “But that’s not how other health care works. Most medical treatments in the U.S. are not optimized for the individual.”
If that seems like fancy stuff for a regional university, it’s the UTC SimCenter, one of the state’s top computational research facilities, that makes it possible. The powerful computer servers at the SimCenter, on M.L.King Boulevard, are up to the tasks Qin and his assistants are throwing at them.
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Qin recently advanced in a worldwide competition called the Healthy Longevity Global Grand Challenge, which seeks to prepare us for a coming world top-heavy with older citizens. For advancing to the second round of the challenge, Qin’s team received $50,000 in seed money, to go along with government grants they already have.
Put simply, Qin is looking for patterns in human genes that can help extend life expectancy and develop better medicine for seniors. Each human has about 20,000 genes, and some of them are so-called “driver genes.” If those driver genes can be isolated and redirected chemically, the course of a human life could ultimately be altered.
For example, Qin says it’s a proven fact that one of the best ways to live longer is to subsist on a restricted-calorie diet. If computational biologists like Qin can help identify how that works at the genetic level, compounds might be developed to trick the genes into mimicking the same life-extending effect, but without the dieting.
Although it sounds like magic, the path to such applications is long and arduous. What can be observed in data must be proven through tests on fruit flies, mice, primates and ultimately humans before applications can be approved.
Still, the biggest roadblock to breakthroughs might be resistance in the medical community to trust something as new and complex as artificial intelligence. Regulatory agencies, such as the federal Food and Drug Administration, haven’t evolved to point that they accept AI research as fact, he said.
“Some people say that health care is the last industry in the United States that hasn’t been impacted by AI,” Qin said in an interview.
On the other hand, there are vast sums of money to be made on breakthroughs to extend human life, so venture capital firms worldwide are funding research to look for biomedical solutions to aging. Owning the fountain of youth, it turns out, could be wildly profitable.
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When he was young, Qin said he played a Chinese board game called Go. Like chess, there are hundreds of years of human understanding that goes into playing Go at the highest levels. But now, AI models are causing high-level Go players to rethink the game. What used to be tried and true Go strategies are now being exposed as flawed, and new paths to winning the game are emerging through AI.
The same could happen in the world of medicine, Qin believes, as people begin to trust AI models to solve problems too complex for the human brain alone.
“Because we are human, we are sometimes stuck and can’t go outside of the box to look at alternatives,” Qin says.
And suddenly Confucianism and the emerging field of AI-driven computational biology seem very much aligned.
“Life Stories” is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.