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Monday, April 14, 2008

Brave New NanoFuture

I just read a book by J. Storrs Hall, entitled Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology. The future Hall envisions is startling, the existence of a virtual fountain of perpetual youth where the nanomachines repair our aging cells, enhance our brain function, and might even allow the transference of consciousness to another body.

“Nano” means "one-billionth" or 10 -9, and refers to technology on the molecular level where molecules are used like tinkertoys to build tiny machines, maybe a micron across (one millionth of a meter, or 10 -6) compared to a red blood cell of about 7 microns. The developmental level of nanotechnology today is limited, with the main application being small nanoparticles that can be used, for example, to make self-cleaning glass or clothing. Another common application is the formation of “bucky tubes,” carbon tubes that can perform as supertiny conductors, semiconductors, or transformers.

Substances behave differently at such a small level. They tend to be smooth and thus slippery, since the only bumps are molecules. They also tend to be flimsy so that nanomachines must be built of a very stiff material. Carbon, as in diamonds, is the molecular
choice now. Eventually nanomachines may be able to harvest materials from the environment and reproduce themselves. Now scientists are simply learning how to deliberately manipulate the molecules to build a designed structure. The ultimate nanomachine and model for scientists is the animal cell with its vast assortment of machinery.

Some of the most interesting applications nanotechnology envisions are to do with biology. For example, Hall talks about artificial respirospheres, nanospheres that carry oxygen around the body to support or replace hemoglobin in red blood cells in case of disease or a heart attack. This was gratifying for me to read since I'd previously written about a similar nanotechnology in my novel to engineer a murder -- using respirospheres filled with carbon monoxide, of course. I was so proud of coming up with a credible way for my bad guy to attack someone in the secure and highly monitored environment of a prison without anyone being the wiser. But I digress.

Other nanobots called microbovores, that act like a type of white blood cell, might patrol the blood stream to destroy invading bacteria. Nanomachines might also prolong and enhance memory by linking directly into brain neurons. The storage and processing of data could allow someone to easily remember exactly what his friend said in a conversation on April 14th at 12:02 p.m., or look at a beam of wood and just “know” that it was 172.3 centimeters long. (Can you say "Borg -- resistance is futile"?)

Most interesting, perhaps, would be using nanomachines to prevent or even reverse aging by cleaning out cellular waste products and damaged cells, and assisting with perpetual cell division by preserving telomeres (a region of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that is necessary for replication). People might live perpetually young, and without disease.

This sounds so great, doesn't it? Yet I remain a firm believer in Murphy's law that says that anything that can go wrong, will. Science has made absolutely remarkable progress, but each advance leads to unintended consequences that can be problematic. We do not live in a perfect world, as much as we'd like to.

You'll notice I didn't even mention the potential problems of sinister intents or of overpopulation. Maybe we'll have to learn to colonize space...

More than this, though, I can't help wondering if I'd really, truly, want to live in this world "forever." I see problems within my own temperament that seem intractable, and know I'm not the only one. C.S. Lewis once said that as we live longer, we become more of what we are. You have a certain personality at 8 that becomes quite formed at 80. If you continued on to 800 the elements, bad as well as good, would become that much more fixed. In Ron Howard's movie Cocoon when the old people swam in the youth-giving water, one gentleman gained the energy to start having affairs again as he had twenty years before. We can't seem to eliminate our bad characteristics, at least not in this life.

My dear friends, I offer these thoughts as something interesting for you to ponder and then draw your own conclusions. It is, indeed, an exciting technology. One wonders where it might lead in one hundred years ...

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