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Monday, May 23, 2022

Vladic’s crusade

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Some years ago my friend Vladic Kropotkin published, at his own expense, a scholarly monograph entitled “DNA and Memory.” He argued that memories were stored in, and recovered from ionized entrons, or non-coding segments of the DNA molecules packed into the nucleus of every sensory neuron in our brain. Back then, the prevailing dogma was that memory was an intrinsic property of the neural network, comprising a hundred billion neurons, each connected to its neighbors via a thousand synapses, while DNA was the exclusive home of the Genetic Code, used for synthesizing proteins and building new cells. So Vladic’s opinion was clearly heretical and should be denounced.

Accordingly, he was dumped on by everyone with the slightest knowledge of the subject. The New York Times branded him delusional if not downright deceitful, and lampooned Kropotkin’s Crackpot Crusade as mere self-advertisement.

I myself, aware that a vastly improved memory had brought us down from the trees and out into Space, was inclined to support Vladic, if only because I was not happy with the network story. Moreover, his idea seemed to offer some prospect of carrying around a whole library in our head. Nowadays, of course, we know he was right, but back then every reputable scientific journal denied him the opportunity to argue his case. Except for the New England Journal of Neurophysiology, which opened its columns to him. And it so chanced that JP Billings, the Texas oil billionaire, chanced to read a summary of Vladic’s impassioned defense, and sensed an opportunity.

As Billings saw it, learning was memory, and if learning could be packed into the nucleus of a neuron, it should be possible to implant learning into any dunderhead’s skull, so avoiding the long and expensive of sending the dunderhead to school. And that meant scrapping the existing educational system, from kindergarten through university, and substituting neurosurgery clinics, to be financed by

Billings. At that particular time, the U.S. was taking a lot of heat over the alleged inefficiency of its schools, and Billings was not averse to doing much of the alleging himself. His efforts eventually set free enough tax money to set Vladic up in a spit brand-new laboratory, where by 2012 he demonstrated the feasibility of storing large volumes of data in synthetic DNA molecules. But doing that in the living brain was something else again. Moreover, everyone in the teaching business tried to sabotage his efforts, fearing loss of livelihood.

So it took five long and difficult years before Vladic could show results, but finally he demonstrated that a 6-year-old dyslectic could respond, on demand, to any question derived from the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia website. Of course, that in itself was no great shakes, since anyone with a computer could do the same, and the academic community was not slow to point out that Wiki was not exactly the repository of all knowledge.

But Vladic persisted, and in a series of brilliant experiments he was able to persuade synthetic DNA, preloaded with everything on the Web that could be called knowledge, to download its billions of coding sequences into the living DNA of the recipient, thus bypassing the difficulty of converting high-speed computer code into snail-slow Action Potentials. I once asked him how he pulled off that little trick, but all he would say was that when it came to talking trillions, it was better to leave the job up to individual molecules, which knew their way around better than any human. Go figure what that meant.

So Vladic was clearly on the right track, and it took only three more years before he was able to get a 2-year-old to discourse like a college professor and to answer every question put to her that had ever been recorded on the Web. And that’s a bunch of questions. It took several more years to bring the cost of the so-called Know-it-All operation within reach of the average Joe, by which time every organization associated with formal education was planning to close its doors, and a good deal of blood was shed. Though in the end we survived and thrived, because the price of a 60-minute brain implant in every toddler was a lot less than a scholastic education.

Not everyone, by a long chalk, wanted to be omniscient, but when ignorance became an elective, it turned into a fad instead of a ticket to the poorhouse, and unemployment became a thing of the past.

The economic future of the U.S., at one time in question, was finally assured. Unfortunately, Vladic was denied the Nobel Prize he so richly deserved; a cabal of unforgiving conservatives made sure of that. Nevertheless, he died believing he had done a good job for humanity, and we certainly can’t deny him that.

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