In a steaming July in New York City, hackers from around the world gathered for The Eleventh HOPE, the latest installment of the biannual Hackers on Planet Earth conference organized by 2600 magazine. As in previous years, it was a gloriously grungy affair, with attendees wearing black T-shirts (adorned with geek references) crammed into the worn corridors and ballrooms of the Hotel Pennsylvania as they chugged on specially imported bottles of the caffeinated Club-Mate drink. But there was also a new emphasis on inclusion for women and the LGBT community, appropriate for a conference that has always styled itself as politically conscious.
This atmosphere was all the background to some eye-opening technical sessions. On the first day of the conference, Michael Laufer displayed a working prototype of an automated home-brew reactor for small-batch pharmaceutical production. The goal is to free patients from the kind of commercial price spikes made infamous when entrepreneur Martin Shkreli raised the price of the widely used antiparasitic drug pyrimethamine by over 5,500 percent in 2015. The prototype was essentially a mason jar with a modified lid. Temperature and pressure can be controlled as reagents, and catalysts are fed in via an Arduino-controlled syringe, but the real innovation is in the chemistry: Published drug-synthesis recipes are often intended for large-batch production by pharmaceutical companies, but Laufer and his colleagues have partnered with the company Chematica, which uses expert systems to find pharmaceutical recipes that are simple, have a large margin of error, and use cheap ingredients.