Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

Thanks for the Support

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Thanks to everyone who signed my petition to the copyright office in support of the EFF’s DMCA exemption requests. I’m overwhelmed that over 25,000 signatures were collected in just a fortnight.

As a supplement to the public petition, I submitted a second letter with personal comments to the copyright office as well. It’s all public record, and here’s a copy of it in case you’re interested in what I had to say:

Dear Ms. Pallante,

I am writing in support of proposed exemption classes 3 (consoles), 4 (personal computing devices) and 5 (smartphones and tablets). I am separately filing a petition with about 25,000 signatures of like-minded consumers who also support these exemption requests.

I’ve been on many sides of the DMCA equation – as a developer, a researcher and a user. In the past, I conducted research on the Microsoft Xbox, which led ultimately to a jailbreak for the platform. This happened while I was earning my PhD in electrical engineering at MIT. In addition, as a hobbyist I have tinkered with many platforms, including the Sega Dreamcast, the Nintendo Gamecube, and various printers. Today, my principal business is the development and sales of end-user hardware devices, many of which incorporate cryptographic elements to control access and to maintain privacy.

I have seen a contraction of user’s rights over my two decades in the industry, and a corresponding decline in small business innovation. I would like to ensure the law recognizes and upholds users’ rights with respect to privately owned hardware. These rights enable users to innovate and improve their hardware. I refer to game consoles, tablets, smartphones, and other computing devices in the same breath because as a hardware designer, all of these systems look basically identical on the inside.

The exemptions I am supporting help preserve a traditional notion of ownership. Before the DMCA, there was a clean, bright line at the checkout counter of a store. Once you bought it, it was yours – if you wanted to use it as a doorstop, you could; if you wanted to modify it to do something more useful, that was also fine. If there was a bug or a security problem with the device, you were free to patch it. Without these exemptions, the owner’s right to modify, repair, improve and develop for devices that incorporate now-ubiquitous cryptographic technology is hampered by the potential legal ramifications of jailbreaking.

Repairing your broken game console is a specific example of something that’s risky to do on your own because of the DMCA. As units age, parts wear out and need replacing. For example, the Xbox has a hard drive; a hard drive will wear out after a few years, rendering the console inoperable. Thus, a user who has invested hundreds of dollars into a game library will eventually suffer its loss of use. Due to the Xbox’s security measures, replacing the hard drive requires jailbreaking the console. Without an exemption, users will ultimately be left with the choice of either abandoning their investment, or facing potential legal problems in the course of repairing or seeking the repair of their console.

Of course, for a limited period of time, one option is to buy a new or second-hand console; or if the platform supports it, purchase a next-gen console which incorporates emulation of previous-generation games. However, the popularity of retro-gaming today demonstrates that certain game titles have a timeless appeal, and can be playable for generations. Nintendo’s Mario franchise is deeply embedded in game culture partly because 80′s vintage consoles can be repaired and played again by both new and old gamers. However, the DMCA makes it risky to engage in basic console repairs that require jailbreaks, such as replacing a worn-out hard drive. In essence, retro-gaming ends where the DMCA begins.

The right to jailbreak is also critical for innovation. As a hardware developer and businessman, I know that the developers don’t always get it right. Locking down a platform turns the dialog between users and companies into a one-sided monologue; the DMCA creates legal uncertainty for users who want to look under the hood and develop an informed opinion about their technology. While the dialog between companies and users is not always harmonious, the result in the end is generally a better solution for the general public. Within 3 days of the A5 iPhone jailbreak, almost 1 million users downloaded the jailbreak. There are over 2 million users of the Nintendo Wii who have installed the home brew channel, enabling them to play independently developed video games. And there are at least hundreds of thousands of Xbox users who run the XBMC application, and millions who have downloaded the same app for their PCs.

XBMC originally stood for the “Xbox Media Center”. It was developed on jailbroken Xboxes in response to the limitations of the Microsoft-sanctioned media player application. Microsoft was slow in responding to user requests for an enhanced media playback experience; furthermore, Microsoft media products tended to favor their proprietary formats, limiting user choice. However, due to cryptographic access controls implemented in the hardware, users could not simply write their own media player application. Therefore, a jailbreak had to be developed – exposing the developers to potential legal liability. However, the passion of these developers is reflected in the quality of the software. Today, the XBMC application has migrated from consoles to PCs, runs on everything from Macs to PCs to set top boxes, and has even resulted in new startups, such as Boxee, based around the platform technology. Without a jailbreak, none of this would have come to pass.

There is an incredible reservoir of innovation that is being held back by the DMCA dam, and granting an exemption to consoles, smartphones, tablets, and other personal computing devices will unleash a powerful torrent of new ideas and improvements.

Please grant these exemptions to re-enable grass-roots innovation and to preserve the traditional notion of ownership.

Sincerely,

Andrew “bunnie” Huang, PhD

You Bought It, but Do You Own It?

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

On February 10th, I’m sending a letter to the Library of Congress in support of granting exemptions to the DMCA for jailbreaking your own devices. If you believe that you should be able to run whatever programs you want on your own hardware, please sign my letter to show support; anyone from anywhere in the world can sign. You can also submit your own letter to the Library of Congress, if you feel so inclined or disagree with my opinions.

In 2002, I intercepted a key on the original Xbox that allowed me to encrypt and run my own software on the device. Even though that Xbox had a Pentium processor on the inside — the same CPU found in my desktop PC — without that key, I could only run the limited selection of software provided to me by Microsoft.

When I was informed about the DMCA, which became law in 1998, it was a bucket of cold water thrown at my face; I felt deeply disenfranchised. You see, I was a graduate student at MIT at the time, and up until that point the freedom to create, explore, and overcome barriers was encouraged, even celebrated. It was bewildering that running linux on this PC with the green X is illegal, yet running linux on this architecturally identical beige box next to it was legal. A chill descended upon the situation; MIT sent letters to me officially repudiating involvement in my activities, fearing the worst. Fortunately, brave souls at the MIT AI lab stood up for me in defiance of the campus counsel, and provided me with resources and the connections to the EFF to negotiate with Microsoft and see a positive ending to the whole situation.

I’m lucky. Not everyone has the encouragement, wisdom and strength of a team of MIT faculty and EFF counsel behind them. Without further exemptions to the DMCA enabling jailbreaking, freedom to innovate and tinker withers. Since then, many lawsuits have been filed under the DMCA, creating a tone of fear. Research projects are abandoned, business plans are scrapped; and the stalwart operators left with the will to research jailbreaks work in shadow, a constant fear of lawsuit haunting them for the mere practice of attempting to load their own software onto hardware that they legally own. Entrepreneurs and innovators should not be so burdened, especially at a time when we need their valuable contributions to bootstrap new businesses.

I believe if you buy hardware, you should own it; and ownership means nothing less of full rights to do with it as you wish. If you believe in this too, please sign my letter to the Library of Congress in support of extended exemptions to the DMCA, enabling jailbreaks for more platforms.

A special thanks to the EFF for preparing the website and helping me with the letter!

On Counterfeit Chips in US Military Hardware

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Amendment 1092 to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012 is a well-intentioned but misguided provision outlining measures designed to reduce the prevalance of counterfeit chips in the US military supply chain.

The Defense Authorization Act already has drawn flack for a provision that gives the US military authorization to detain US citizens indefinitely without trial, and I think it rather ironically requires an assessment of the US Federal Debt owed China as a potential “National Security Risk” (section 1225 of HR1540) — anyone want to take bets as to whether the conclusion of this assessment leads to prioritizing deficit reduction as a national security issue, or if it leads to justifying further borrowing from China to build up a military to fend off its biggest creditor?

Under the proposed anti-counterfeit amendment, first-time offenders can receive a $5 million fine and 20 years prison for individuals, or $15 million for corporations; a penalty comparable to that of trafficking cocaine. While the amendment explicitly defines “counterfeit” to include refurbished parts represented as new, the wording is regrettably vague on whether you must be willfully trafficking such goods to also be liable for such a stiff penalty.

If you took a dirty but legitimately minted coin and washed it so that it looked mint condition and then sold it to a collector as mint quality, nobody would accuse you of counterfeiting. Yet, this amendment puts a 20 year, $5 million penalty on not only the act of counterfeiting chips destined for military use, but potentially the unwitting distribution of such chips that you putatively bought as new but couldn’t tell yourself if they were refurbished. Unfortunately, in many cases an electronic part can be used for years with no sign of external wear.

The amendment also has a provision to create an “inspection program”:

(b) Inspection of Imported Electronic Parts –

(1) … the Secretary of Homeland Security shall establish a program of enhanced inspection by U.S. Customs and Border patrol of electronic parts imported from any country that has been determined by the Secretary of Defense to have been a significant source of counterfeit electronic parts …

It’s one thing to inspect fruits and vegetables as they enter the country for pests and other problems; but it is misguided to require Customs officers to become experts in detecting fakes, and/or to burden vendors with the onus of determining whether parts are authentic, particularly with such high penalties involved and the relative ease that forgers can create high-quality counterfeit parts.

To better understand the magnitude of the counterfeiting problem, it’s helpful to know fakes are made. The fakes I’ve seen fall into the following broad categories:

1) Trivial external mimicry. Typically these are empty plastic packages with authentic-looking topmarks, or remarked parts that share only physical traits with the authentic parts (for example, a TTL logic chip in an SO-20 case remarked as an expensive microcontroller that uses the same SO-20 case). I consider this technique trivial because it is so easy to detect during factory test; in the worst case you are sold a thin mixture of authentic and conterfeit parts so that testing just one part out of a tube or reel isn’t good enough. However, in all cases the problem is discovered before the product ships so long as the product overall is thoroughly tested.

2) Refurbished parts. These are authentic parts recovered from e-waste that have been desoldered and reprocessed to appear as new. These are very difficult to spot since the chip is in fact authentic, and a skilled refurbisher can create stunningly authentic-looking results that can only be discriminated with the use of electronic micsoscopes and elemental/isotopic analysis. I also include in this category parts that are new only the sense they have never been soldered onto a board, but were stored improperly (for example, in a humid environment) and should be scrapped, but were subsequently reconditioned and sold like new.

3) Rebinned parts. These are parts that were authentic, and perhaps have never been used (so can be classified as “new”), but have their markings changed to reflect a higher specification of an identical function. A classic example is grinding and remarking CPUs with a higher speed grade, or more trivially parts that contain lead marked as RoHS-compliant. However, it can get as sophisticated as vendors reverse engineering and reprogramming the fuse codes inside the chip so that the chip’s electronic records match the faked markings on top; or vendors have been known to do deep hacks on Flash drive firmware so that a small memory can appear to a host OS as a much larger memory, going so far as to “loop” memory so that writes beyond the capacity of the device appear to succeed.

4) Ghost-shift parts. These are parts that are created on the exact same fabrication facility as authentic parts, but run by employees without authorization of the manufacturer and never logged on the books. Often times they are assigned a lot code identical to a legitimate run, but certain testing steps are skipped. These fakes can be extremely hard to detect. It’s like an employee in a mint striking extra coins after-hours.

5) Factory scrap. Factory rejects and pilot runs can be recovered from the scrap heap for a small bribe, and given authentic markings and resold as new. In order to avoid detection, workers often replace the salvaged scrap with physically identical dummy packages, thus foiling attempts to audit the scrap trail.

6) Second-sourcing gone bad. Second-sourcing is a standard industry practice where competitors create pin-compatible replacements for popular products in order to create price competition and strengthen the supply chain against events like natural disasters. The practice goes bad when inferior parts are re-marked with the logos of premium brands. High-value but functionally simple discrete analog chips such as power regulators are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Premium US brands can command a 10x markup over Asian brands, as “drop-in replacement” Asian-brand parts are notorious for spotty quality, cut corners and poor parametric performance. However, there is a lot of money to be made buying blanks from the second source fab and remarking them with authentic-looking top marks of premium US brands. In some cases there are no inexpensive or fast tests to detect these fakes, short of decapsulating the chip and comparing mask patterns and cross-sections.

In the case of the US Military, they have a unique problem where they are one of the biggest and wealthiest buyers of really old parts. Military designs have shelf lives of decades, but parts have production cycles of only years. It’s like asking someone to build a NeXT Cube motherboard today using only certifiably new parts; no secondhand or refurbished parts allowed. I don’t think it’s possible.

The impossibility of this situation may force military contractors to be complicit in the consumption of counterfeit parts. For example, the fake parts in the P-8 Poseidon were “badly refurbished”. A poor refurbishing job is probably detectable with a simple visual inspection, so even though people are quick to point fingers at China, maybe part of the problem is that the contractor was lax in checking incoming stock — or perhaps looking the other way, because if these are the last parts of its kind in the world, what else can they do?

Another part of the senate hearings revealed that L3 bought counterfeit video memory chips destined for C-27J aircraft from Global IC Trading Group. Well … duh. Global IC ain’t Digikey … they specialize in trading excess, overruns and secondhand goods. The prices are often good, but I only go to them if I’m really in a bind, and I’m willing to accept odd lots to get production moving at any cost. L3′s big enough to have a professional sourcing group aware of that, and thus exercise extreme caution when buying from such vendors.

My guess is that the stocks of any distributor in the secondhand electronics business are already flooded with undetected counterfeits. Remember, only the bad fakes are ever caught, and chip packaging was not designed with anti-counterfeiting measures in mind. While all gray market parts are suspect, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Gray markets play an essential role in the electronics ecosystem; using them is a calculated but sometimes unavoidable risk.

While the situation is clearly a mess now, some simple measures going forward could help fix things for the future. One could involve embedding anti-counterfeit measures in chips approved for military use. For chips larger than 1cm, a unique 2-D barcode can be applied with laser markings. The equipment to do such laser-marking is relatively commonplace today in chip packaging facilities. The efficacy of such techniques has been proven in biotech, where systems such as Matrix 2D are deployed to track disposable sample tubes in biology labs. Despite a tiny footprint, the codes are backed with a guarantee of 100% uniqueness. Another potential solution is to mix a UV dye into the component’s epoxy that changes fluorescence properties upon exposure to reflow temperatures. If the dye is distributed through the plastic body of the case, the change will be impossible to remove with grinding alone.

A second partial measure could be to manage e-waste better. E-waste is harvested in bulk for used parts. One can purchase crudely desoldered MSM7000-series chips (the brains of many Android smartphones) by the pound, at around ten cents for a chip. These chips are then cleaned up, reballed and sometimes remarked, put into tapes and reels and sold as brand new, commanding over a 10x markup. Thus, a single batch of chips can net thousands of dollars, making it a compelling source of income for skilled labor that would otherwise work in a factory for $200 per month.

If we stopped shipping our e-waste overseas for disposal, or at least ground up the parts before shipping them over, then the feedstock for such markets would be reduced. It could also create jobs domestically for processing the e-waste, which by the way is a source of gold comparable to the richest gold ore. On the other hand, I’m of the opinion that in the big picture this sort of component-level recycling is actually quite good for the environment and the human ecosystem. Upon disposal, most electronics still have years of serviceable life in them, and there is a hungry market for technology in emerging economies that cannot be met with new parts purchased on the primary market.

A final option could be to establish a strategic reserve of parts. A production run of military planes is limited to perhaps hundreds of units, and so I imagine the lifetime demand of a part including replacements is limited to tens of thousands of units. I can fit ten thousand chips in the volume of a large shoebox; at least physically, it’s not an unmanageable proposition. These are small volumes compared to consumer electronics volumes. I imagine that purchasing a reserve of raw replacement components for critical avionics systems would only add a fraction of a percent to the cost of an airplane, and could even lead to long term cost savings as manufacturers can achieve greater scale efficiency if they run one large batch all at once. This could be a foolproof method to ensure supply trustability for critical military hardware.

Why the Best Days of Open Hardware are Yet to Come

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Recently, I gave a talk at the 2011 Open Hardware Summit. The program committee had requested that I prepare a “vision” talk, something that addresses open hardware issues 20-30 years out. These kinds of talks are notoriously difficult to get right, and I don’t really consider myself a vision guy; but I gave it my best shot. Fortunately, the talk was well-received, so I’m sharing the ideas here on my blog.

Abstract

Currently, open hardware is a niche industry. In this post, I highlight the trends that have caused the hardware industry to favor large, closed businesses at the expense of small or individual innovators. However, looking 20-30 years into the future, I see a fundamental shift in trends that can tilt the balance of power to favor innovation over scale.

Where we Came From: Open to Closed

In the beginning, hardware was open. Early consumer electronic products, such as vacuum tube radios, often shipped with user manuals that contained full schematics, a list of replacement parts, and instructions for service. In the 80′s, computers often shipped with schematics. For example, the Apple II shipped with a reference manual that included a full schematic of the mainboard, an artifact that I credit as strongly influencing me to get into hardware. However, contemporary user manuals lack such depth of information; the most complex diagram in a recent Mac Pro user instructs on how to sit at the computer: “thighs slightly lifted”, “shoulders relaxed”, etc.

What happened? Did electronics just get too hard and complex? On the contrary, improving electronics got to easy: the pace of Moore’s Law has been too much for small-scale innovators to keep up.

Where we Are: Sit and Wait > Innovate

Consider this snapshot of Moore’s law, illustrating “goodness” (pick virtually any metric — performance, density, price-per-quanta) doubling every 18 months. This chart is unusual in that the vertical axis is linear. Most charts depicting Moore’s law use a logarithic vertical scale, which flattens the curve’s sharp upward trend into a much more innocuous looking straight line.


Above: Moore’s Law, doubling once every 18 months (red) versus linear improvement of 75% per year (blue). The small green sliver between the red and blue lines (found at t < 2yrs) represents the window of opportunity where linear improvement exceeds Moore's law. Note that the vertical axis on this graph is linear scale.

Plotted in blue is a line that represents a linear improvement over time. This might be representative of a small innovator working at a constant but respectable rate of 75% per year, non compounding, to add or improve features on a given platform. The tiny (almost invisible) green sliver between the curves represents the market opportunity of the small innovator versus Moore’s law.

The juxtaposition of these two curves highlights the central challenge facing small innovators over the past three decades. It has been more rewarding to “sit and wait” rather than innovate: if it takes two years to implement an innovation that doubles the performance of a system, one is better served by not trying and simply waiting and upgrading to the latest hardware two years later. It is a Sisyphean exercise to race against Moore’s Law.

This exponential growth mechanic favors large businesses with the resources to achieve huge scale. Instead of developing one product at a time, a competitive business must have the resources and hopefully the vision to develop 3 or 4 generations of products simultaneously. Furthermore, reaching the global market within the timespan of a single technology generation requires a supply chain and distribution channel that can do millions of units a month: consider that selling at a rate of 10,000 units per month would take 8 years to reach “only” a million users, or about 1% of the households in the US alone. And, significantly, the small barrier (a few months time) created by closing a design and forcing the competition to reverse engineer products can be an advantage, especially when contrasted to the pace of Moore’s law. Thus, technology markets have become progressively inaccessible to small innovators over the past three decades as individuals struggle to keep up with the technology treadmill, and big companies continue to close their designs to gain a thin edge on their competition.

However, this trend is changing.

Where we are Going: Heirloom Laptops

Below is a plot of Intel CPU clock speed at introduction versus time. There is an abrupt plateau in 2003 where clock speed stopped increasing. Since then, CPU makers have been using multi-core technology to drive performance (effective performance extrapolated as the pink dashed line), but this wasn’t by choice: certain physical limits were reached that prevented practical clock scaling (primarily related to power and wire delay scaling). Transistor density (and hence core count) continues to scale, but the pace is decelerating. In the 90′s, transistor count was doubling once every 18 months; today, it is probably slower than once every 24 months. Soon, transistor density scaling will slow to a pace of 36 months per generation, and eventually it will come to an effective stand-still. The absolute endpoint for transistor scaling is a topic of debate, but one study indicates that scaling may stop at around 5nm effective gate length sometime around 2020 or 2030 (H. Iwai, Microelectronics Engineering (2009), doi: 10.1016 / j.mee.2009.03.129). 5 nm is about the space between 10 silicon atoms, so even if this guess is wrong, it can’t be wrong by much.

The implications are profound. Someday, you cannot rely on buying a faster computer next year. Your phone won’t get any smaller or more powerful. And the flash drive you buy next year will cost the same yet store the same number of bits. The idea of an “heirloom laptop” may sound preposterous today, but someday we may perceive our computers as cherished and useful looms to hand down to our children as part of our legacy.

This slowing trend is good for small businesses, and likewise open hardware practices. To see why this is the case, let’s revisit the plot of Moore’s Law versus linear improvement, but this time overlay two new scenarios: technology doubling once every 24 and 36 months.


Above: Moore’s Law versus linear improvement (blue), plotted against the scenarios of doubling once every 18 months (red), every 24 months (black), and every 36 months (pink). The green area between the pink and blue lines represents the window of opportunity where linear improvement exceeds Moore’s law when the doubling interval is set to 36 months. Note that the vertical axis on this graph is log scale.

Again, the green area represents the market opportunity for linear improvement vs. Moore’s Law. In the 36-month scenario, linear improvement not only has over 8 years to go before it is lapped by Moore’s Law, there is a point at around year 2 or 3 where the optimized solution is clearly superior to Moore’s Law. In other words, there is a genuine market window for monetizing innovative solutions at a pace that small businesses can handle.

Also, as Moore’s law decelerates, there is a potential for greater standardization of platforms. While today it seems ridiculous to create a standard tablet or mobile phone chassis with interchangeable components, this becomes a reasonable proposition when components stop shrinking and changing so much. As technology decelerates, there will be a convergence between that which is found in mobile phones, and that which is found in embedded CPU modules (such as the Arduino). The creation of stable, performance-competitive open platforms will be enabling for small businesses. Of course, a small business can still choose to be closed, but by doing so it must create a vertical set of proprietary infrastructure, and the dilution of focus to implement such a stack could be disadvantageous.

In the post-Moore’s law future, FPGAs may find themselves performing respectably to their hard-wired CPU kin, for at least two reasons: the flexible yet regular structure of an FPGA may lend it a longer scaling curve, in part due to the FPGA’s ability to reconfigure circuits around small-scale fluctuations in fabrication tolerances, and because the extra effort to optimize code for hardware acceleration will amortize more favorably as CPU performance scaling increasingly relies upon difficult techniques such as massive parallelism. After all, today’s massively multicore CPU architectures are starting to look a lot like the coarse-grain FPGA architectures proposed in academic circles in the mid to late 90′s. An equalization of FPGA to CPU performance should greatly facilitate the penetration of open hardware at a very deep level.

There will be a rise in repair culture as technology becomes less disposable and more permanent. Replacing worn out computer parts five years from their purchase date won’t seem so silly when the replacement part has virtually the same specifications and price as the old part. This rise in repair culture will create a demand for schematics and spare parts that in turn facilitates the growth of open ecosystems and small businesses.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the return of artisan engineering, where elegance, optimization and balance are valued over feature creep, and where I can use the same tool for a decade and not be viewed as an anachronism (most people laugh when they hear my email client is still Eudora 7).

Examples

The deceleration of Moore’s Law is already showing its impact on markets that are not as sensitive to performance. Consider the rise of the Arduino platform. The Arduino took several years to gain popularity, with virtually the same hardware at its core since 2005. Fortunately, the demands of Arduino’s primary market (physical computing, education, and embedded control applications) has not grown and thus the platform can be very stable. This stability in turn has enabled Arduino to grow deep roots in a thriving user community with open and interoperable standards.

Another example is the Shanzhai phenomenon in China; in a nutshell, the Shanzhai are typically small businesses, and they rely upon an ecosystem of “shared” blueprints. The Shanzhai are masters at building low-end “feature phones”. The market for feature phones is largely insensitive to improvements in CPU technology; you don’t need a GHz-class CPU to drive the simple UIs found on feature phones. Thus, the same core chipset can be re-used for years with little adverse impact on demand or competitiveness of the final product. This platform stability has afforded these small, agile innovators the time to learn the platform thoroughly, and to recover this investment by creating riff after riff on the same theme. Often times, the results are astonishingly innovative, yet accomplished on a shoe string budget. Initially, the Shanzhai were viewed simply as copycatters; but thanks to the relative stability of the feature phone platform, they have learned their tools well and are now pumping out novel and creative works.

The scene is set for the open hardware ecosystem to blossom over the next couple of decades, with some hard work and a bit of luck. The inevitable slowdown of Moore’s Law may spell trouble for today’s technology giants, but it also creates an opportunity for the fledgling open hardware movement to grow roots and be the start of something potentially very big. In order to seize this opportunity, today’s open hardware pioneers will need to set the stage by creating a culture of permissive standards and customs that can scale into the future.

I look forward to being a part of open hardware’s bright future.

A footnote on novel H1N1

Friday, August 19th, 2011

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak, talking a bit about the mechanics of the virus and how it could be hacked. Today I read an interesting tidbit in Nature referencing this article in Science that is a silver lining on the H1N1 cloud.

You know how every flu season there’s a new flu vaccine, yet somehow for other diseases you only need to be vaccinated once? It’s because there’s no vaccine that can target all types of flu. Apparently, a patient who contracted “swine flu” during the pandemic created a novel antibody with the remarkable ability to confer immunity to all 16 subtypes of influenza A. A group of researchers sifted through the white blood cells of the patient and managed to isolate four B cells that contain the code to produce this antibody. These cells have been cloned and are producing antibodies facilitating further research into a potential broad-spectrum vaccine that could confer broad protection against the flu.

For some reason I find this really interesting. I think it’s because at a gut level it gives me hope that if a killer virus did arise that wipes out most of humanity, there’s some evidence that maybe a small group of people will survive it. Also, never getting the flu again? Yes, please! On the other hand, this vaccine will be a fun one to observe as it evolves, particularly around the IP and production rights that results from this. Who owns it, and who deserves credit for it? Does the patient that evolved the antibody deserve any credit? What will be the interplay between the researchers, the funding institutions, the health industry and the consumer market? Should/can the final result or process be patented so that ultimately, a corporation is granted a monopoly on the vaccine (maybe there’s already a ruling on this)? Should we administer the resulting vaccine to everyone, risking the forced evolution of a new “superstrain” of flu that could be even deadlier, or should we restrict it only to the old, weak, and young? While these questions have been asked and sometimes answered in other contexts, everyone can relate to suffering through the flu, so perhaps the public debate around such issues will be livelier.