Nanotech and immortality

Ray Kurzweil, in "The Singularity is Near" proposes a redesign of cells using nanotechnology that would cure disease...and aging.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

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.

Editorial standards