Nanotech and immortality

Nanotech and immortality

Summary: Ray Kurzweil, in "The Singularity is Near" proposes a redesign of cells using nanotechnology that would cure disease...and aging.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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From the "out of left field" department, I've been finishing up my reading of Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near," a book I bought over eight months ago and hadn't got around to finishing yet. In my defense, at 651 pages and with enough cross-disiplinary technical detail to tax the thinking capacity of most people (IMO), it's hardly light reading.

This post doesn't exactly fit with my typical blogging fare (though this series of pieces from January, 2006, does), but that never stopped me before.

Anyway, Kurzweil in Chapter 5, titled GNR (which doesn't stand for Guns 'n Roses), discusses the revolutionary changes that will lead to the complete redesign of the human body, right down to the molecular level. This, obviously, would make our attempts to stop performance-enhancing substances in sports seem like applying an expensive new coat of paint to a car before entering it in a demolition derby. Kurzweil goes further than the concept and tries to paint broad outlines as to how it might be done. It made me sit back and go "wow."

Kurzweil notes earlier in the book how nanobots would do a better job of getting oxygen to cells than the biological solution (red blood cells), and in the following paragraphs, suggests how we could redesign the cells themselves to be mostly immune to pathogens.

Upgrading the Cell Nucleus with a Nanocomputer and a Nanobot

Here's a conceptually simple proposal to overcome all biological pathogens except for prions (self-replicating pathological proteins). With the advent of full-scale nanotechnology in the 2020s we will have the potential to replace biology's genetic-information repository in the cell nucleus with a nanoengineered system that would maintain the genetic code and simulate the actions of RNA, the ribosome, and other elements of the computer in biology's assembler. A nano-computer would maintain the genetic code and implement the gene-expression algorithms. A nanobot would then construct the amino-acid sequences for the expressed genes.

There would be significant benefits in adopting such a mechanism. We would eliminate the accumulation of DNA transcription errors, one major source of the aging process (something we'll be able to do long before this scenario, using gene-therapy techniques). We would also be able to defeat biological pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells) by blocking any unwanted replication of genetic information

I don't have a scanner, but in a graphic on the page, he has a mockup which includes lines to indicate wireless communication to the outside world. Let's hope that wireless communication CAN'T be hacked, otherwise digital vandals might inject us with genes to turn everyone into clones of Jessica Simpson, or some fire-breathing lizard creature from the pages of a Dungeon Master's Guide.

To those who doubt whether such nano-extravagance is possible, Kurzweil has this rather pithy rejoinder (made in response to a certain Nobel Laureate named Richard Smalley, a critic of Eric Drexler's proposed design of a nano-assembler):

Indeed, if Smalley's critique were valid, none of us would be here to discuss it, because life itself would be impossible, given that biology's assembler does exactly what Smalley says is impossible.

In other words, we are all a bunch of nano-machines that have evolved over the course of billions of years. Weird stuff, and even weirder is to think that this kind of thing happened all on its own. That's probably the reason some think there had to be some rational guiding principle to it all, as spontaneously self-organizing nano-machines seems too weird...

...unless that says something about the inherent structure of the universe, which in itself is weird. What a confusing puzzle we live in. Truth IS stranger than fiction.

Topic: Hardware

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • Kurzweil's Ideas Violate Two Principles

    There are two principles I would like to discuss: 1) that of something being able to create something else substantially better than itself; and 2) that of something substantially improving itself. The fact of the matter is that these two principles are not seen around us, but the ?theory? of evolution, and people like Kurzweil claim they exist. And to make matters worse, claimants of the existence of the above 2 principles, suggest that they only exist within the theory? of evolution, and like theories which cannot be proved.

    As an example, if you were to ask someone, how is it that you don?t see viruses creating plant, animals, and humans? They would reply that this, according to the ?theory? of evolution, only occurs in tiny baby steps. They cannot point to irrefutable proof that either the above example, or its underlying principle actually exist. Similarly, Kurzweil et al cannot point to irrefutable proof that the principle of things being able to substantially improve themselves actually exist.

    Now the above is very important, because we see opposites of the above 2 principles all around us, but never see the 2 principles themselves. Therefore we see man creating viruses, and man and animals fashioning tools ? wherein things or creatures are able to create things substantially lesser than themselves (but not the other way around). Similarly we don?t see a dirty rag cleaning itself, rather we see external agents applied to things, to make the things become substantially improved. This is important, because it is important to realize that mankind can only be substantially improved, by an external agent effecting the change. Therefore it is impossible for mankind to reach any where close to perfection, without something external causing it.
    P. Douglas
    • Re: improvement

      [i]1) that of something being able to create something else substantially better than itself; and 2) that of something substantially improving itself. The fact of the matter is that these two principles are not seen around us, but the ?theory? of evolution, and people like Kurzweil claim they exist.[/i]

      I would say the design of a modern computer, and the data efficiency of that device, is superior in many ways to some of the biological analogs we see in cells. Granted, it isn't as small (yet), and we don't have the massively parallel architecture of something like the brain, but certain aspects are better, and taken to its logical conclusion, I could easily see us making something "better" than ourselves. I have no logical problem with that.

      Evolution I consider incontrovertible. We can debate whether or not there is some mysterious divine hand, but given that that's not provable I consider it extraneous to the discussion. What does seem true is that living creatures DO evolve, slowly, over time, and more complex creatures CAN come from much simpler ones, given long enough timeframes to allow slow incremental changes to add up.

      [i]As an example, if you were to ask someone, how is it that you don?t see viruses creating plant, animals, and humans?[/i]

      A nonsense example, as that would be like asking a single transistor to single-handedly guide the robotic construction process at a car factory. However, it IS possible for a less complicated computer to guide the process of making a more complicated one. Granted, in this case, the information used to guide the machine is complex, and right now, we don't have machines that can rival the human brain in terms of creativity. But, allow the incremental changes to continue in the same accelerating pace identified by Kurzweil, and I could see things ending up very different.

      [i]Similarly we don?t see a dirty rag cleaning itself, rather we see external agents applied to things, to make the things become substantially improved.[/i]

      Dirty rags aren't intelligent. The question is can intelligent things improve themselves. Humans clearly do. The question is whether a machine can replicate that process, and given improvements over the biological accidents, do it faster. Kurzweil believes the answer to that question is yes, a machine can replicate that process, and that will be the driver of the accelerating pace of human technological development...AND evolution.
      John Carroll
      • Re: improvement

        [i]I would say the design of a modern computer, and the data efficiency of that device, is superior in many ways to some of the biological analogs we see in cells. Granted, it isn't as small (yet), and we don't have the massively parallel architecture of something like the brain, but certain aspects are better, and taken to its logical conclusion, I could easily see us making something "better" than ourselves. I have no logical problem with that.[/i]

        By your reasoning, many animals are better than humans because they are stronger, faster, etc. in a number of areas than us. However, can lions build cities and spacecraft? Are we not by and large their captors rather than the other way around? Therefore just because man builds tools that exceed his capabilities in a number of areas, hardly means that there is a potential for man?s tools to exceed him.

        [i]Evolution I consider incontrovertible. We can debate whether or not there is some mysterious divine hand, but given that that's not provable I consider it extraneous to the discussion. What does seem true is that living creatures DO evolve, slowly, over time, and more complex creatures CAN come from much simpler ones, given long enough timeframes to allow slow incremental changes to add up.[/i]

        Saying that evolution is incontrovertible hardly makes it so. Where is the irrefutable proof that evolution actually takes place, and why is its underlying principle (that of something being able to create something else substantially better than itself) not seen around us? Also the existence of God is provable through observation and reasoning.

        [i]A nonsense example, as that would be like asking a single transistor to single-handedly guide the robotic construction process at a car factory. However, it IS possible for a less complicated computer to guide the process of making a more complicated one. Granted, in this case, the information used to guide the machine is complex, and right now, we don't have machines that can rival the human brain in terms of creativity. But, allow the incremental changes to continue in the same accelerating pace identified by Kurzweil, and I could see things ending up very different.[/i]

        Fine, show me an example of a computer designing another one substantially greater than itself, without human intervention.

        [i]Dirty rags aren't intelligent. The question is can intelligent things improve themselves. Humans clearly do. The question is whether a machine can replicate that process, and given improvements over the biological accidents, do it faster. Kurzweil believes the answer to that question is yes, a machine can replicate that process, and that will be the driver of the accelerating pace of human technological development...AND evolution.[/i]

        Okay, substitute human being for dirty rag in what I said above. Also, I said substantially improve itself ? not merely improve itself. People?s fundamental behavior have not changed for thousands of years. People generally aren?t telepathic now, as opposed to how they were thousands of years ago, etc.
        P. Douglas
        • Re: Re: improvement

          [i]By your reasoning, many animals are better than humans because they are stronger, faster, etc. in a number of areas than us.[/i]

          Many animals ARE better in certain areas. A cat has a more efficient spinal column design. Lions have more powerful muscles, and can better defend themselves in natural situations. Just because they are better in certain physical aspects, however, does not mean they are more intelligent.

          Intelligence is obviously our advantage, and we are "better" than any animal in that regard.

          [i]Therefore just because man builds tools that exceed his capabilities in a number of areas, hardly means that there is a potential for man?s tools to exceed him.[/i]

          But we do. I can't chop a tree down on my own, but I can if I have a chainsaw. I can't fire a small lead object faster than the speed of sound. I can if I have a gun. On my own, I am naked. I can MAKE clothes, however (or, people can...I'm not so great around a sewing machine ;) )

          [i]Saying that evolution is incontrovertible hardly makes it so. Where is the irrefutable proof that evolution actually takes place, and why is its underlying principle (that of something being able to create something else substantially better than itself) not seen around us?[/i]

          I think it is, but the timeframes we have for comparison is so short. We've dramatically changed the shape and characteristics of certain animals (cats, dogs, etc) in very short timeframes. That's making mild changes to genetics via breeding. Now, extend that over time, and add a bunch of mild changes together that are the result of some successful creatures surviving and breeding more, and others dying because they are not as effective at survival, and you get evolution.

          Evolution is incredibly logical, and I have trouble understanding why anyone would question it. Now, we can argue about what CAUSES it, though as noted, I think the question of divine intervention is something we can't prove one way or another given our limited material contact with the outside world. In other words, it's really relevant to the discussion.

          [i]Also the existence of God is provable through observation and reasoning.[/i]

          I disagree. Proving things happen in the material world is doable. Proving their root causes is not. You can make up logical reasons why you think a divine being HAD to initiate things, but really, all you've proven (assuming your proof is logically sound) is that something has to be driving it. Whether or not that is god or some incomprehensibly weird structure of the universe is something none of us can "prove."

          We can only, in other words, "prove" what happens.

          [i]Fine, show me an example of a computer designing another one substantially greater than itself, without human intervention.[/i]

          Not yet. We don't have machines that powerful yet. We have made SOME things better than biological systems, however. I'm just saying it seems conceivable that we can extend that to the point of making an artificial brain more powerful than our own, particularly as it uses the mechanical improvements on biology we have already discovered.

          [i] Also, I said substantially improve itself ? not merely improve itself.[/i]

          I think we HAVE substantially improved ourselves through our technology. We aren't the creatures that foraged in forests in the distant past. What we haven't done is create an artificial intelligence, or started to truly alter ourselves using the knowledge we gain from building artificial intelligence. I think it conceivable that we may do so...someday...and if Kurzweil is right, that someday could be sooner than we think.
          John Carroll
          • Evolution principles, divinity

            [i][u]Therefore just because man builds tools that exceed his capabilities in a number of areas, hardly means that there is a potential for man?s tools to exceed him.[/u]

            But we do. I can't chop a tree down on my own, but I can if I have a chainsaw. I can't fire a small lead object faster than the speed of sound. I can if I have a gun. On my own, I am naked. I can MAKE clothes, however (or, people can...I'm not so great around a sewing machine :wink: )[/i]

            I don't see where you undermined what I said.

            [i][u]Saying that evolution is incontrovertible hardly makes it so. Where is the irrefutable proof that evolution actually takes place, and why is its underlying principle (that of something being able to create something else substantially better than itself) not seen around us?[/u]

            I think it is, but the timeframes we have for comparison is so short. We've dramatically changed the shape and characteristics of certain animals (cats, dogs, etc) in very short timeframes. That's making mild changes to genetics via breeding. Now, extend that over time, and add a bunch of mild changes together that are the result of some successful creatures surviving and breeding more, and others dying because they are not as effective at survival, and you get evolution.[/i]

            I'm sorry, but I don't see any proof in what you said, about the correctness of evolution. How have cats, dogs, etc. substantially improved their own selves, or created creatures better than themselves? Also, you pointed to an important defect with evolution supporters: they ultimately cannot prove the theory they put forward.

            [i]Evolution is incredibly logical, and I have trouble understanding why anyone would question it. Now, we can argue about what CAUSES it, though as noted, I think the question of divine intervention is something we can't prove one way or another given our limited material contact with the outside world. In other words, it's really relevant to the discussion.[/i]

            Almost any argument contains some logic, but that hardly means that it is fundamentally sound. Evolution violates several principles in life, which its supporters ignore. As for the question of the existence of divinity: which is more perfect, a society with intelligent human beings living lawfully, or a society with foolish human beings living recklessly? The first kind of society can accomplish great things, but the second kind is much more limited in what it can do. Now when we look around, we see a world and universe of astounding organization and governance, how can we reasonably conclude anything other than the fact that they were established by highly intelligent, powerful, righteous beings, who are far more perfect than ourselves. It is the beings and their society that exist at the top of the hierarchy of all things that exist, which we call divinity.
            P. Douglas
          • Evolution has been proven

            "Also, you pointed to an important defect with evolution supporters: they ultimately cannot prove the theory they put forward."

            You can even see it yourself. You can actually view micro-organisms evolving as you watch. History is also full of example of evolution.

            Evolution in no way removes creationism however. Something had to start the ball rolling didn't it? That could be a devine being, something beyond our comphension or the whole thing could just be more than man could ever understand.

            Also I don't think I believe the whole we are descended from monkeys idea. That's kind of silly if ask me.
            voska
          • Evolution - the real proof

            The real "proof" of evolution is that universally researchers who are advancing the fields of medicine, bio-technology, and genetics -- all things generating very real solutions to just the sort of problems impacting treatment of disease and illnesses -- accept and base much of their work on the premise that evolution happens. So-called "scientists" who go to lengths to deny that evolution is acceptable science almost universally do not generate results that advance what we are able to do or to generate work that advances the field.

            Science is not about "proof" in the mathematical sense, and it never has been. It's about peer-review and demonstrating results.

            You can spend a lot of energy batting around philsophical arguments of design and quibbling over the first law of thermodynamics, but in the end, science is not philosophy. It's about a social network of researchers who obtain additional money to continue their work by demonstrating results that the community of other reasearchers recognizes as legitimate work that they can themselves built upon. Ultimate, that science is funded that delivers results. And that, by me, is as good an arbiter of "truth" as any.

            None of this says you can't legitimately belive in God, or space aliens, or the mysterious unknowable other, only that none of this should be confused with science.

            Check out "The Anatomy of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn for some background if you'd like some potentially mind-opening insights.
            jcg_z
          • Evolution principles, divinity - part deux

            [i][u]Also the existence of God is provable through observation and reasoning.[/u]

            I disagree. Proving things happen in the material world is doable. Proving their root causes is not. You can make up logical reasons why you think a divine being HAD to initiate things, but really, all you've proven (assuming your proof is logically sound) is that something has to be driving it. Whether or not that is god or some incomprehensibly weird structure of the universe is something none of us can "prove."

            We can only, in other words, "prove" what happens.[/i]

            If there is no witness in a case, but there is strong forensic and other evidence that a suspect committed a crime, is it unreasonable for a jury to convict the suspect? Therefore, is it unreasonable for us to infer from the things around us, the structure and organization of our universe? In fact, isn?t that what science attempts to do?

            [i][u]Fine, show me an example of a computer designing another one substantially greater than itself, without human intervention.[/u]

            Not yet. We don't have machines that powerful yet. We have made SOME things better than biological systems, however. I'm just saying it seems conceivable that we can extend that to the point of making an artificial brain more powerful than our own, particularly as it uses the mechanical improvements on biology we have already discovered.[/i]

            We think it is conceivable based on the popular notion that things can create other things substantially greater than themselves. However it is a fact that this principle does not exist.

            [i][u]Also, I said substantially improve itself ? not merely improve itself.[/u]

            I think we HAVE substantially improved ourselves through our technology. We aren't the creatures that foraged in forests in the distant past. What we haven't done is create an artificial intelligence, or started to truly alter ourselves using the knowledge we gain from building artificial intelligence. I think it conceivable that we may do so...someday...and if Kurzweil is right, that someday could be sooner than we think.[/i]

            All that we have done, is through technology, made superficial improvements to ourselves. E.g. when you look at disasters, and the way people react in disasters, we see that we are essentially the same as our forbears, thousands of years ago.
            P. Douglas
        • Re: Re: improvement (edited)

          Darn lack of preview....

          I meant...

          In other words, it's really [b]not[/b] relevant to the discussion.

          ...but you probably guessed that.
          John Carroll
          • Stained class comforts often confiscated.

            Not to go too off-topic here, but you could just switch to Firefox and install Greasemonkey and ZDstyler; if you really wanted the ZD-net preview function back.

            Joke! Joke! I'm sure you've already considered your options, JC.
            John Le'Brecage
          • You know...

            ...I think I might just try that. I already use Firefox to post to ZDNet, and have zero problems using it for other things.

            I realize you've talked about this before, but the fact that there are easier ways to deal with this problem just slipped my mind.
            John Carroll
    • Deliberately disregarding evidence

      How about you take a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York for PLENTY of evidence regarding the theory of evolution. Regarding man being improved: ever hear of cavemen? Neanderthals evolving into cromagnum evolving into Homo Sapiens? There's TONS of fossil evidence supporting the connection between these species, and NO evidence that any external intelligent force was applied to make it happen!
      Here's a link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life/human/species/

      The real problem is that creationists, err, Intelligent Design people refuse to BELIEVE in rationality, so there is very little point in discussing anything with them.
      hlampert
      • Ninja hordes swarm over the hillsides...

        Just a nitpick, that in no way invalidates the evidence for Homo sapiens evolution. Recent mitocondrial DNA studies have confirmed Homo Neanderthalensis did not evolve into Homo Sapiens, Rather both were offshoots of a common ancestor Homo Ergaster, which was a short-lived (in geological terms) evolution of Homo Erectus.
        John Le'Brecage
        • Also

          Neaderthals and Homo Spapiens existed at the same time in different regions of the planet. There is even evidence that leans towards inter breeding of the two species in Northern Europe.
          voska
      • What evidence have I disregarded?

        The bottom line is that there is no incontrovertible proof. Every aspect of evolution can be explained away using alternate explanations ? from the existence of early primates which died off, to the creation of models of older creatures from fossils, fashioned in ways to support evolution.

        As for evidence of intelligent forces crafting our world, this is evident from the ultra sophistication of our world and universe, and from the principle we see around us of the ordering of things only taking place via the action of intelligent beings.
        P. Douglas
    • Principles of evolution

      > Similarly we don?t see a dirty rag cleaning itself, rather we
      > see external agents applied to things, to make the things become
      > substantially improved.

      That is true of natural selection as well. People who don't understand evolution repeatedly mischaracterize it as a gradual process of self-improvement. That's not the case. Natural selection is a matter of the external influences eliminating those natural variations that not well-suited to the environment (with no regard to whether the variation is a "baby-step" or a giant leap. Changes are only gradual in that they must breed true and it takes time for them to spread throughout the succeeding generations). IOW, harsh environmental conditions and competition kill off those organisms that are ill-suited before they can reproduce, leaving those organisms that are better suited. Considered in this way, natural selection is a destructive process requiring no violation of physical principles.

      Note that this is the opposite of the popular conception that organisms "adapt" to their environment. They don't... the environment and competition do the culling. NATURAL selection has no philosophical preference; in this context there is no measure by which we can say that one organism is an "improvement" over another other than in having greater success in passing on genes to the next generation.

      Artificial selection works much the same way. We breed animals and plants with the qualities we want, and cull undesirable traits without allowing the possessors to breed. Thus, in historical times we have seen breeding and selection by farmers yield cows that give more milk, sheep that yield more wool, grasses that yield more grain. We know for a fact that genetic selection works because we've seen it happen and made it happen. "Improvement" in this context is what pleases us, in that we have created the environment that selects for those improved traits.

      We depend on evolution. Even though it wasn't explicitly described until Darwin, we've used it to our benefit for thousands of years, and have understood its principles for all that time. It is no surprise (to anyone but a few modern Creationists) that if you breed only your fluffiest sheep, over time your entire herd will be fluffy, or that tall parents have tall children.

      Your objection against something substantially improving itself is without basis. It ignores the fact that we have unprecedented control over our environment and are capable of influencing that which influences us. Through the invention and application of medications leading to the eradication of many deadly diseases we have dramatically improved the human lifespan. This is an inverse example of evolution: we routinely improve our suitability for the environment by changing the environment itself and we reap the benefits.

      Your implicit assumption is that external influences must originate outside of a species. Not true. In some cases, traits are selected for that have no bearing on suitability for a particular environment, but rather selection for (for example) sexual preference. These traits provide examples where a species engages in self-modification purely due to preferences within that species (they pick sexually attractive mates and pass on those traits, which is obvious even to a Creationist). The point here is that (if we are honest) we know as an indisputable fact that we select AMONG OURSELVES according to our own preferences. If we believe in free will then we must of necessity allow that these preferences are not externally imposed. Rather, we provide our own intra-species dynamics that determine whether individual members of our group will be successful in passing on their genes.

      All that said, some of the things discussed by Kurzweil have nothing to do with evolution. Nanobots to replace red blood, for example, wouldn't be genetically transmitted. They are in the category of mechanical assistance (and anybody with a pacemaker or on portable oxygen should recognize this as a difference of degree, not of kind). Gene therapy may be transmissible, but as to whether it's an improvement... well, that's a matter of opinion, and I think the skeptics have the high ground. I, for one, wouldn't characterize dependence on nanobots as an improvement in any case. Beneficiaries of the technologies would probably disagree. I also find it unlikely that we'll engineer substantially better machines to police DNA than the enzymes we already have.

      Nevertheless, on a more limited scale we've seen that gene therapy can be effected on lab animals. There is no principle that prevents the substitution of human subjects for any others. The fact is that a subset of humanity CAN effect evolutionary changes on another subset without violating any principle that you imagine exists. Whether they SHOULD is a whole other topic.
      dave.leigh@...
      • How did you counter my point?

        What did you write above, violate the principle you quoted at the top of your comment? If a particular animal does well because its environment favors its existence, how has the animal substantially improved itself? Also, if someone modifies his behavior, how has he improved himself by exhibiting behaviors substantially better than the known range of human behaviors? No one has ever done this. Do you know of anyone who has ever done this?
        P. Douglas
        • You misunderstand Evolution completely

          Your point is countered because your premise is revealed as flawed. Once again: Evolution isn't about "improvement".
          dave.leigh@...
          • Clarification

            Okay let me clarify a few things. My contention is that evolution violates the principle of creatures creating other creatures greater than themselves. Now in an associated field, you have people like Kurzweil contending that creatures can substantially improve their own selves in an evolutionary (baby steps) like manner. My point is that both these processes are impossible, because they would have to violate the principles I stated above.
            P. Douglas
          • They're not a valid principles...

            ... as I show,
            here: http://tinyurl.com/pnv9j
            and here: http://tinyurl.com/ldn8a
            dave.leigh@...