As the Internet of Everything (IoX) reaches scalable metrics, technologies are undergoing metamorphosis. The IoX will change the fundamental metrics of a lot of technologies, from security to wireless to biometrics.
On the biometrics front, there is a vast array of recognition applications, from fingerprints to retina to facial to veinous scans, but the one that is garnering a lot of attention is something called DNA sequencing, and a subset, rapid DNA sequencing. Both are being looked at for applicability in the IoX.
DNA sequencing is emerging as a tool, especially the rapid derivative, for fast and efficient identification in a variety of circumstances including the present worldwide crisis.
Looking ahead and focusing on the core DNA technology, rather than what it can be used for is the focus of this missive. And, it is likely to have a larger presence in the IoX simply because of the IoX has such a ubiquitous footprint.
Whenever a highly technical topic such as biometrics is broached, one finds a vast treatise on how well it works, does not work or has some conditions to work. The range of experts that have opinions is nearly endless. But that, actually, is a good thing, because it grounds the technology. The same is true for other platforms like the cloud and 5G. If you do not look at both the upside and downside, you get a skewed perspective.
In an IoX world, there will be a lot of activities that will require user authentication, while many others validation will simply be autonomous, or based on some of the advanced AI that will accompany this evolution. Interestingly, they are not always about specific identity verification – read on.
On one side biometrics, certainly, will be required to for authentication and to prove your identity. This use case is parallel to today’s requirement for showing a picture ID when doing certain bank transactions, in person.
On the other hand, there are autonomous use cases where unique identification is not required, but individual analysis is.
An example of this is where one might be sitting at a bar, having a cocktail. With advanced biometrics, and a ubiquitous world of sensor, it is quite realistic that the glass will contain sensors that can tell what you are drinking, know when the glass is close to empty and let the bartender know to check with you for a refill. As well, such biometrics can be used to sense the level of alcohol in one’s system and let the server know the customer is nearing a high alcohol saturation level, or simply automatically cut off drinks to the customer.
The interesting thing about this particular application is that this has nothing to do with who I am, where I live, or anything that involves authentication. So, biometrics is not always about individual and verifying identity. This is an interesting case for the IoX.
There is a slew of such applications in the offering. Some closer to reality than others, but as technology advances, more and more of these applications reach practicality.
Looking at DNA in advanced biometrics
One of the more intriguing segments of advanced biometrics is DNA sequencing. DNA Sequencing is the process of reading nucleotide bases in a DNA molecule. It can unlock the genome, and offer answers to many of biology’s most challenging inquiries.
Sequencing DNA involve analyzing and determining the order of the “bases,” the four chemical building blocks known to make up the DNA molecule. The sequence contains genetic data that is carried in a particular DNA segment and can reveal a plethora of information to the trained scientist.
How this works is that, in the DNA double helix, these four chemical bases will always bond with the same partner to form what is called the base pairs. The chemical Adenine (A) will always bond, or pair Thymine (T). Conversely, Cytosine (C) will always pair with Guanine (G).
The human genome contains about three billion base pairs, which map out the instructions for creating and maintaining the human presence. Sequencing can reveal information to allow the determination of the stretches of DNA that contain genes, and what they carry.
Stretches can be separated into those that carry regulatory instructions, and those that turn genes on or off. Of tantamount importance is the ability to see what changes go on in the genes. This can be extremely useful in a number of circumstances.
Why this garners so much interest in this is that it can be used as a predictor in a number of fields. For example, finding signs of disease, which is particularly relevant at this moment.
On the security platform, there is work being done on predicting unusual patterns, or even footprints that can suggest instability in psychological makeup that predetermine aggressive behavior, leaning towards potential criminal behavior (1). In fact, there is an entire discipline, called Biosocial Criminology, dealing with that aspect.
Much of this is still in the investigational or experimental stages, meaning that solid evidence is scarce. But as computing power reaches quantum proportions, and Big Data becomes more mainstream, the well of knowledge deepens. One of the touted benefits of Big Data is not just more data but using Big Data metrics to provide much more accurate and predictable results. Coupled with massive computing capabilities, what previously took days, now takes hours.
Consider the fact that human DNA is made up of roughly three billion bases, and over 99 percent of them are common to all people. Big Data promises to attain real, reliable data that can, unequivocally, be used to predict behavior. This is a real exciting development.
Rapid DNA, the next level
Advancements in semiconductor technology is accelerating rapid DNA sequencing (or R-DNA, just for this discussion). R-DNA, also called Next-Generation Sequencing (NGA) is described by the FBI as “the fully automated (hands free) process of developing a CODIS Core STR profile from a reference sample buccal swab.”
The goal of this automated process is to create field-deployable instruments capable of producing a CODIS-compatible DNA profile within two hours. That, compared to days or weeks for standard DNA analysis. While law enforcement is the strongest use case, Rapid DNA can be used for a variety of other applications. Some are human trafficking, immigration, natural disasters, and war crimes. One hot area is the potential for the military to track terrorists or militants, via their DNA.
Is it conceivable that integrating Big Data, Biosocial Criminology techniques, and supercomputing, it would be possible to ascertain the “biometrics” of entire populations? This is truly mindboggling, and the implications are both intriguing and disconcerting, if this were to be used for nefarious actions by less scrupulous factions (such as fascist or repressive nations, or even our own government)?
This is all on the radar screen, now, because of bleeding-edge semiconductor technology that converts the chemically encoded data (A, C, G, T) into digital information (ones, zeros) on a semiconductor chip. It is the integration of chemistry and electronics and is the gateway to making R-DNA a reality.
However, this is still in its infancy, and the technology is proprietary. It has been colloquially referred to, by one player, as Watson meets Moore. This technology has broken both the technology and cost barriers. This bumps sequencing technology an order of magnitude by making it simpler, faster, more cost-effective and scalable.
DNA and the IoX
There is a fair amount of discussion about DNA, and how it can become part of the biometric family (finger, face, palm, iris, etc., that are used for various forms of recognition). This is also still a fairly fuzzy vision and there are various schools of thought around it.
Much of this revolves around what role biometrics will play in the segments (authentication, for example) of the IoX. If the DNA platform becomes part of the biometrics envelope, such a dramatic cut in the amount of time to get a DNA sample has huge ramifications for law enforcement, war crimes investigations and immigration. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice are also investigating prototypes.
Once deployed, these systems would significantly reduce the time to analyze DNA. They would let investigators use the technology in the field instead of sending samples to a clean lab, for example.
Advances in biometrics are, somewhat, linked to developments in sensors. The more sophisticated (and inexpensive) the sensors become, the more biometrics can play a role in a variety of applications.