bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

We definitely do not need a “Steve Jobs” in biology

If you follow me on Twitter, you cannot help but know that I am not Steve Jobs’ biggest fan – in fact I have frequently called him the most over-rated man in history.  I stand by that.  Steve Jobs is just a common garden billionaire capitalist.  No better or worse than any other billionaire capitalist.  As such he deserves some respect and I give him that – well done, Steve, for taking things and selling enough of them to make yourself a billionaire.  It’s a feat that deserves respect – I couldn’t do it.  Why then is he idolized?   I don’t have all of the answers but I suspect it has something to do with the fact he ran a company that designed cool-looking consumer devices that, for a minority, defined them and defined their entire lives.

So why am I writing about Steve Jobs?

Because Eric Schadt said the biggest need in biology today is a “Steve Jobs”.

I was pretty astounded when I read that, because Eric is an intelligent man.  So why the ridiculous statement?  Let’s look at this a bit more.

What did Steve Jobs actually do?

Steve Wozniak, who designed the technology behind early Apple devices, has said that Steve Jobs wasn’t interested in technology, he just wanted to be important.  Sour grapes?  Perhaps; though perhaps Steve was the real creative genius and resents the fact Steve got all of the credit?

Others have analysed what Steve Jobs actually did, (many ask the question), and I quote from Ian McCullough below:

He was central to the mass marketing and consumerization of the personal computer — but he by no means invented it. That credit most directly goes to people like Ivan Sutherland, Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, and the people who worked at Xerox PARC and the Stanford Research Institute during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Let us also remember that he didn’t invent the portable digital music player. Looking past the Sony Walkman which first met the general desire to carry music with you, the first known mention of a digital music player is Kane Kramer’s IXI in 1981. In the US, the Diamond Rio was the first widely available portable MP3 player in the late ’90s. The iPod didn’t come out until 2001. How about multi-touch screens? It’s a big “no” there too. That was Bent Stumpe & Frank Beck and later Bell Labs at Murray Hill, with some early experimentation from musicians like Huge Le Caine and Bob Moog. And what of Pixar (company)? He actually bought what became known as Pixar from none other than George Lucas in 1986. It was Ed Catmull that drove the Pixar technology side and ultimately John Lasseter (director) that drove the creative side. (Steve does get credit there for cultivating the business, building the The Walt Disney Company (company) relationship, and – according to all third-party reports – smartly staying out of the way.) To be completely fair: as far as I know he never actually laid claim to these accomplishments, but he is so tightly associated with them in the popular mind that many people make the errors.

Steve Jobs was a salesman of unparalleled natural talent, an astute curator, and a very tough editor. It is clear that he made the ideas and products that he came into contact with significantly better and extremely desirable to consumers, but he did not originate those things.

So, from what I can gather, Steve Jobs took what other people invented, made it cool and desirable and sold it for great profit.  Remind me: why do we need that in biology?

What did Eric Schadt actually say?

Eric’s visions, and it is one that I and many others share, is that if you collect enough relevant information, both scientific data but also patient data, and you include “additional” data feeds such as microbiome and the local environment, then we will be able to build predictive models that improve the treatment of disease in humans.  The models can and will be refined by experimental validation which will feed back into and improve the models.

That’s cool, and as I said, many people share this vision.  In fact, in many ways this describes molecular biology research of the last 10-15 years.

Eric goes on to say that we need to put these models in the hands of doctors who can work with them, who don’t need to understand the models, but who need to be able to use them.  And that’s where he brings Steve Jobs into the equation, and here is what he said:

“I think the number one need in biology today is a Steve Jobs. Where is the Steve Jobs of biology who can lead the design of amazing, intuitive interfaces into these complex data?”

Wait, wut?  Firstly, what amazing intuitive interface is he talking about?  Angry Birds?  The iPod wheel?  Touch screens (that neither Steve Jobs nor Apple invented)?  A high definition screen? Aluminium?  Icons?  Is talking about iOS icons?   Does Eric think that what biology needs is a set of cartoonish icons designed for toddlers?


Back to what Eric said: do we need these models?  Absolutely, of course we do!  Do we need doctors to be able to use them?  Damn right!  Do we need an amazing intuitive interface to them?  Absolutely.  Sign me up!  Did Steve Jobs ever invent such an interface?  Of course he fucking didn’t, he’s a fucking salesman!

Do we need an amazing salesman who steals your personal data in biology/medicine?  FUCK NO!

What else did Eric Schadt say?

He said a bunch of stuff that I agree with.  He’s hiring intelligent people from machine learning and high-performance computing, network modellng etc and I think that’s a great idea (though hiring some dude from Facebook also raised my hackles slightly).  He talks about open-ness and data sharing and the problems he faces with a sense of data ownership.

I mean, all in all I agree with Eric – apart from that dumb reference to Steve Jobs!

An inconvenient truth

There are several inconvenient truths in biology today that might prevent Eric and others’ vision coming true.  However here are the main two:

  1. We cannot accurately measure everything we need to measure.  We don’t survey the whole of the genome.  Proteins and other small molecules we are not able to measure/quantify accurately.  Our knowledge of epigenetics, 3D genome structure, the action of enhancers, ncRNA, microbiome etc etc is not refined enough.  Put simply, we don’t have all of the data that the model needs, and nor can we easily get it
  2. Once we do have all of the data, the most intelligent machine on the planet, the human brain, will be incapable of understanding it all.  It’s high-dimensional data that we as humans simply can’t understand.  Jun Wang (or Wang Jun as I know him) is right when he says that artificial intelligence is the future of genomics – the only thing that can genuinely understand the complexity that is a living cell, or living organism, is an intelligence far greater than our own.  The problem is AI is nowhere near this capability yet.

I’m not saying that machine learning, models and “big data” won’t advance knowledge and insight; it may even provide us with additional treatments.  But 1000s of diseases will remain uncured until such time as “we” can understand biology, and we’re quite a long way from that at the moment.  Credit to Eric for trying.

A last word on Steve Jobs

Imagine a world with two billionaires, both whom made their money by revolutionizing the computing and electronic devices world.  One of them sets up the largest transparent private foundation in the world, which aims to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty globally.  The other one dies.

Which one do we need in biology?


  1. A tough topic presented very lucidly! Excellent

  2. I think your criticism of Jobs is spot-on but I think you missed the point of what Schmidt was trying to say.

    “Eric’s visions, and it is one that I and many others share, is that if you collect enough relevant information, both scientific data but also patient data, and you include “additional” data feeds such as microbiome and the local environment, then we will be able to build predictive models that improve the treatment of disease in humans. The models can and will be refined by experimental validation which will feed back into and improve the models.

    That’s cool…”

    That’s NOT cool, at least not to the average person. Nobody wants to think about diseases they might have or be at risk for, and they don’t wait for ‘data feeds from their microbiome’ with much anticipation. Personal biology right now is a technical black box that only offers clues to our universal dread: Death. For biology to be cool it needs to adopt the ‘it just works’ Apple mantra and focus the consumer on the promises of enhancing performance, extending life and avoiding expensive visits to the doctor. Whether this is achieved with iOS icons who knows, as long as its as easy and painless to the end-user as possible. Schmidt’s point was someone needs to come along and make biology accessible, like Jobs made computers accessible. Because ultimately nobody cared what Wozniak and the others did- although what they did was valuable- if it wasn’t compiled in a seamless package, which doesn’t mean a superficially attractive box. I still find hidden features in Mac OS all the time, intuitive little key commands or gestures, and its a testament to Apple’s belief that making something appear simple doesn’t mean that it must also be incapable. The real value (of any tool really) lies in abstracting away the technical details and putting power in the hands of a relatively unsophisticated user. What this can mean when applied to biology is anyone’s guess, but it feels like an exciting prospect.

    You’re right though, the basic science of molecular biology isn’t there yet which makes Schmidt’s comparison premature.

  3. It’s an interesting point but I’d still argue that it wasn’t Jobs who did any of that. Arguably it wasn’t Apple. I just don’t see that Apple/Jobs made anything accessible, or abstracted complexity. They made things cool and they marketed them brilliantly. I’m not sure that’s what biology needs, not at all

  4. My opinion is that Eric Schadt is the most overrated person in Biology. (Seriously, what are his achievements?). And btw “that Facebook dude” is seriously very good, smart, and builds some tools that might well become widely used in the near future…
    (Maybe slight off-topic, but feels better saying it)

  5. -The other one dies.

    If you are going to say it, say it.

    He died because he tried to treat his cancer with alternative medicine.

  6. thank you for finally calling out steve jobs idolization—by all accounts he was an asshole, and not behind any of the actual technological innovation–his main strength was probably improving the aesthetics and sleekness of apple products by being a nearly absurdist perfectionist–sure that contributes to his success, but how does being a successful businessman warrant sainthood?

  7. Completely agree! Ofcourse better salesmen aren’t needed in biology. What is needed are creative minds and innovators to improve processes and speed up research.

  8. I don’t think it’s correct to write Jobs and Apple off as merely a very good salesman. It is certainly true there is a big part of their success that is marketing and hype driven, especially now, but I think that a very important point is missed by that conclusion. It comes down to how different people’s brains are wired and how this then means that they use computers and interact with technology. If you’re familiar with Myers Briggs personality types, one element is the Intuition-Sensing axis where Sensing means being factual, experience, detail driven and Intuition means being more impression, metaphor, big picture driven. Although everyone has a preference for one or the other, this can be more or less extreme in different people, and most people are capable of both to a greater or lesser degree. Neither is better than the other, they’re just different. More info here:

    So what does this have to do with Steve Jobs? Well, although Apple and Steve Jobs may not have invented the GUI, the MP3 player or the smart-phone, what they were very good at was making it work in such a way that was ‘intuitive’ – ie in a way that people applied their Intuition rather than their Sensing. However, this is going to be more beneficial to people who prefer to work in this way than those who don’t. To someone with a strong Sensing preference, there really is no difference between Windows and Mac, Sony MP3 player or iPod, Nokia phone or iPhone – it’s just an interface that you read the manual, learn the details and off you go. But to someone with a strong Intuition preference, they will find it much easier to use the Apple device and they will appreciate not having to learn details, because it’s been designed to work in a way that they naturally prefer. The fact that people in the creative industries such as film, photography and music are more likely to have a stronger Intuition is why Apple has always been popular in those industries – Apple products were just a way to let them work productively without the technical stuff getting in the way.

    It just comes down to people being different. I’m a bioinformatician, I’m perfectly technically capable of using any operating system, programming language or smartphone you want to give me. But in MBTI terms I’m an INTP with a strong Intuition preference, so I’ve just always found that a Mac or an iPhone just works the way I want it to work and that I’m more productive in that environment. The marketing is an irrelevance, and I’m thankful that Steve Jobs was around to provide an alternative to a Microsoft dominated tech industry.

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