3 min readWhat is systems biology?

A new field of biology is showing us how we can effectively work with AI in the future.

In the following transcript, Dr. Nitin Baliga, Director for Integrative Biology at the Institute of Systems Biology (ISB) tells us about the work they do in this new field of biology and how they hope to change our understanding of medicine, diseases, and the human body.

Implications for AI

Though the science utilized by ISB is still based on a materialist mindset, it considers the reality that individuals are not predetermined by their genes. It attempts to look at other fields of study in order to create conclusions that makes logical sense not just to one field, but to all of it. By doing so, the goal is to drive new researches that are no longer reductionist, but are open to possibilities. 

If there is one benefit to artificial intelligence, it is this: it helps us make sense of the vast amounts of information being generated by our society. The work of ISB offers to us one possibility of how we may be able to engage with AIs in the future. But it also creates strict guidelines: if we are to utilize the full benefits of AI, it must be utilized in context, and its results must unite seemingly disconnected scientific facts from various fields of studies. This holistic view of knowledge will help us move science forward, because it is forced to relate to new information, which hopefully, will help us close the gap between the materialist, reductionist science and the post-materialist science. 

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What is systems biology?

System biology is a discipline to understand complexity in biology. So let me tell you what complex systems are, and that will help me explain what systems biology does.
A complex system is a system that is made up of many interacting parts. We use complex systems in every day life – airplanes, television, cell phones. These are all examples of complex systems, and they’re made up of many individual parts. None of the individual parts in and of themselves possessed properties of the whole system. When they come together, they give special properties which are called emergent properties. 

And biology functions in many ways in a similar fashion. There’s many genes, the genes interact with one another, and also the environment and what we see are the phenotypes. And we call them emergent properties. 
So to understand complexity in biology, we need to understand not just how individual genes function, but we need to understand how they interact with one another, and the environment. That’s what systems biology is. 

ISB is the founding institution for systems biology. And it really paved the way for this whole new discipline, a whole new way of doing science. And it pioneered the integration of different disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, and so on. And applied this integration towards solving very complicated problems. Maybe some of the most complex problems we will face in the 21st century. They range from complex diseases like cancer, all the way up to sustainable environment, to the fuel production.

And this is essentially what makes ISB unique is the complexity of biology drives the development of new technologies so we can make the right kinds of measurements of all the constituent parts, understand how they interact with one another. And the application of these technologies generates very large amounts of data.
And to analyze this data we invent completely new computational algorithms. And the analysis of the data then gives us fascinating insights. And of course, new questions which then drive the next cycle of systems biology.

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