I’ve got two very different kinds of “intelligence” on my mind right now, one of them questionable and the other artificial. But let’s start with the questionable, shall we?
As I write this editorial, we here in the United States have only just come off the longest-ever federal government shutdown any of us have ever experienced. And, by the time you see this February issue in your mail pile or on your computer screen, we should know whether the issues that led to the showdown have been resolved, or whether they festered, continued and shut us down again.
For many Americans, a federal government shutdown seems an abstract thing. But it’s not abstract for the furloughed workers trying to pay bills, or the national parks that can neither take in revenue nor prevent vandalism of natural resources, or even for people potentially put at risk because of lack of food inspections—and so on. And, you know, closer to our pharma and biotech home right here in these pages, it’s not good for the FDA to be out of commission any length of time, given how hard it is to progress drugs through trials and into consideration for approval—not to mention any number of initiatives and/or standards FDA needs to be working on. The agency has made some strides in recent years, but things can still sometimes move with all the speed of an arthritic dinosaur during a deep-freeze.
As Dr. Jesus Cuaron, managing pharma analyst at GlobalData, noted in the days following the temporary halt on the U.S. government shutdown and the approaching deadline for a compromise to keep the government open, “Throughout the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, federal agencies struggled to make sure that some, to most, oversight and guidance continued despite inadequate funding, including staffers not being paid.
“During the initial government shutdown, the FDA, tasked with protecting public health through oversight and regulation, began to shift its remaining 2018 funds towards usage in important 2019 drug approvals. However, if the federal government is forced to shut down once again, it is unlikely that the FDA will have the flexibility or backup funds required to deliver drug approvals in a timely manner.
“Whether or not the U.S. government will be shut down starting in mid-February is yet to be seen, but it is hoped that a compromise can be found between Congress and the President to prevent it. In the meantime, FDA employees, drug developers and patients have much to lose if drug approvals are stalled by months due to another shutdown.”
Basically, I think you can see where I, Cuaron and others see the “questionable” intelligence I hinted at earlier. Regardless of where you or I want to put the blame—which party, which branch of government, which real or imagined crisis—the fact is it isn’t smart for our health or our future to shut down a government as part of political posturing or deal-making.
On a brighter note, and more encouraging even if it isn’t “actual” intelligence, this issues brings a topic I’ve really been looking forward to covering in-depth in the magazine: artificial intelligence (AI). We have an entire Focus Feature section devoted to the subject this month and we have AI-related stories peppered throughout the issue in other sections as well, which you'll see if you go through the current issue online (and you'll see even better if you have the physical issue or the PDF of it, because we have a handy graphic marking all the AI stories in the issue).
Intelligence is a hallmark of the work that goes into life sciences, pharma and biotech efforts. We would not be where we are today—technologically or creatively—when it comes to drugs, drug-like therapeutics or ways to discover and create them if not for a slew of really smart people, thinking both inside and outside the box.
But at the same time, as technology has gotten more advanced in gathering data, particularly genomic data and the many other 'omics from metabolomics to proteomics and more, we have gotten to a point where the human brain is not enough. And so we look to the computers and we gift to them machine learning and other tools our human intelligence has created, so that our electronic helpers can become more intuitive and guide us to the next breakthroughs. AI may not be self-aware yet (and perhaps never will be), and it might not be “true” cognition, but it is a kind of intelligence we need in order to crack a great many mysteries of the human body and how to treat it properly.
All hail our coming electronic overlords—er, I mean, our honored computerized assistants and colleagues...