The low-hanging fruit of technological progress

The website Alternative Right has an interesting article on the declining pace of technological progress:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated…Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago?…Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of “Nanotech,” a “subject” which was “invented” in K. Eric Drexler‘s Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us “real soon now.” I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this “technology” will be?

The author dismisses the idea that the rapid technological progress between 1959 and 1909 was possible because these generations focused on the “easy stuff” but I wonder if this explanation can be so easily dismissed. Even if we allow for the credible hypothesis that laissez-faire capitalism is more conducive to accelerating technological change than a mixed economy, it cannot be ignored that commercial incentives favor picking the low-hanging fruit first. The current generation is left with more complicated technological  and biomedical objectives such as molecular nanotechnology and rejuvenation of the human body.

A sober mind should never get too carried away with either optimism or pessimism. One major advantage of making cryonics arrangements is that it eliminates some of the anxiety that comes from recognizing that credible rejuvenation therapies may not become available in your lifetime. Patients in cryostasis have time, a point that is not always fully recognized by skeptics of accelerating technological progress.

Eric Drexler launches Metamodern blog

Molecular nanotechnology pioneer and cryonics advocate Eric Drexler has launched his own blog called Metamodern: The Trajectory of Technology. This is what we can expect:

In this blog, I’ll discuss current progress in science and technology, often with a specific perspective in mind: how current progress can contribute to the development of advanced nanosystems. This system-building perspective often highlights research opportunities and rewards that might otherwise be missed. As the topics come up, I’ll be suggesting research objectives that seem practical, valuable, and ready for serious pursuit.

However, like Engines of Creation, this blog isn’t intended to be “about nanotechnology”, but about broader issues involving technologies that will bring global change. Social software and the computational infrastructure of society are high on the list.

In his first post Drexler talks about the data explosion and the scientific method:

Tradition demands that science always be hypothesis-driven: First, try to guess the truth, and only afterward collect experimental data to test whether the guess predicts the results. Indeed, this has been termed “The Scientific Method”. The new data-driven approach suggests that we collect data first, then see what it tells us. This becomes practical when experimental methods can amass enormous amounts of data, enough data to test more hypotheses than any mortal scientist could conceivably imagine.

Eric Drexler has received a fair amount of uninformed and some informed criticism over the years. It is therefore encouraging to see Drexler making his presence known online.

HT Overcoming Bias

Brownian motion and nanotechnology

Brownian motion started when Robert Brown looked into his microscope and observed that pollen suspended in water moved around in a continuous random motion. Wanting to rule out some “vital life force,” Brown also  investigated dead things such as sand and metals but he observed the same jittery motion. The dead danced as well. Or perhaps the Epicureans anticipated the phenomenon of Brownian motion in Lucretius‘s scientific poem On the Nature of Things:

Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves.

The writer Mark Haw has been so fascinated with the phenomenon and history of Brownian motion that he decided to write a book about it called Middle World: The Restless Heart of Matter and Life. This accessible introduction covers the history of Brownian motion, the “mesoscopic” middle world between the (sub)atomic world and the world of “large” objects,  taking us from the puzzling observations of Robert Brown to its relevance for the upcoming science of nanotechnology. Commenting on the challenges that the middle world, where “objects simply cannot  stand still,” presents to Eric Drexler’s vision of  “hard” nanotechnology, the author observes:

Matter in the middle world does things differently.  You could insist on modeling your machines after the macroworld and finding chemical ways to achieve that. But why not use the fantastically rich range of things that matter does in the middle world to come up with whole new ways of solving engineering problems? Why not profit from unavoidable restlessness? We know it can be done: life has already done it.

Although published 3 years earlier than Haw’s book, Richard Jones picks up this very theme in his excellent book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. This book presents a more technical treatment of Brownian motion and other nanoscale phenomena that an advanced nanotechnology simply cannot work around.  But instead of resisting the unruly world of randomness and sticky objects, Jones proposes to embrace these phenomena as the most obvious road to build nanoscale devices. Although the author does not completely dismiss the “top-down” Drexler approach, he strongly prefers to use the bionanotechnological tools that nature has provided and to improve upon them. He also introduces an approach called “biomimetic nanotechnology” that would involve “the copying of the principles of operation of biological nanotechnology, but executing them in synthetic materials.”

Since August 2004, Richard Jones also publishes a blog that reports on the future of nanotechnology  and has featured informed critiques of the Drexlerian vision of radical nanotechnology and Singularitarianism.

Soft nanotechnology

Ever since humans imagined the ability to deliberately manipulate matter on the atomic scale, they have glimpsed the boundless possibilities of the science of nanotechnology. And for almost as long, they have disputed whether molecular machines should be built using a “hard” (physical engineering) or “soft” (biology-based) approach. On his blog, Richard Jones, author of the book Soft Machines, discusses some of the more intricate details and debates in molecular nanotechnology.

In a recent post, Jones delves into the issue of what lessons nanotechnology should take away from biological systems: should we view cell biology as the penultimate achievement in nanotechnology, or can we improve upon the slap-dash, trial-and-error approach of evolution by making rational choices in materials? In his words:

The engineers’ view, if I can put it that way, is that nature shows what can be achieved with random design methods and a palette of unsuitable materials allocated by the accidents of history. If you take this point of view, it seems obvious that it should be fairly straightforward to make nanoscale machines whose performance vastly exceeds that of biology, by making rational choices of materials, rather than making do with what the accidents of evolution have provided, and by using the design principles we’ve learnt in macroscopic engineering.

The opposite view stresses that evolution is an extremely effective way of searching parameter space, and that in consequence is that we should assume that biological design solutions are likely to be close to optimal for the environment for which they’ve evolved. Where these design solutions seem odd from our point of view, their unfamiliarity is to be ascribed to the different ways in which physics works at the nanoscale. At its most extreme, this view regards biological nanotechnology, not just as the existence proof for nanotechnology, but as an upper limit on its capabilities.

Ultimately, argues Jones, nanotechnology has a lot to learn from biological systems — but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of improving upon it, either. He cites the emerging science of synthetic biology as a field that is using a sensible engineering approach to the development of biological nanodevices such as molecular motors, and wonders if this approach may ultimately lead to a biomemetic nanotechnology.

The right lessons for nanotechnology to learn from biology might not always be the obvious ones, but there’s no doubting their importance. Can the traffic ever go the other way – will there be lessons for biology to learn from nanotechnology? It seems inevitable that the enterprise of doing engineering with nanoscale biological components must lead to a deeper understanding of molecular biophysics. I wonder, though, whether there might not be some deeper consequences. What separates the two extreme positions on the relevance of biology to nanotechnology is a difference in opinion on the issue of the degree to which our biology is optimal, and whether there could be other, fundamentally different kinds of biology, possibly optimised for a different set of environmental parameters. It may well be a vain expectation to imagine that a wholly synthetic nanotechnology could ever match the performance of cell biology, but even considering the possibility represents a valuable broadening of our horizons.

In a more recent post, Jones announces the upcoming Soft Nanotechnology meeting in London next year.

A forthcoming conference in London will be discussing the “soft” approach to nanotechnology. The meeting – Faraday Discussion 143 – Soft Nanotechnology – is organised by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and follows a rather unusual format. Selected participants in the meeting submit a full research paper, which is peer reviewed and circulated, before the meeting, to all the attendees. The meeting itself concentrates on a detailed discussion of the papers, rather than a simple presentation of the results.

Warm biostasis through nanotechnology

One concern about chemical fixation as a low cost alternative to cryonics is that current fixatives may not be able to permanently fix all biomolecules that are important to preserve the identity of the person. A related concern is that postmortem delays may not permit adequate perfusion of the brain, resulting in pockets of decomposed tissue. On this issue, biostasis at cryogenic temperatures (cryonics) has a distinct advantage because extreme cold will also preserve tissues that were not, or were poorly, penetrated by the cryoprotectant agent.

But even if cryoprotectant toxicity will be overcome to enable reversible vitrification of humans, the procedures of cryoprotectant perfusion, cryogenic cooldown, long term care, rewarming, and resuscitation may often involve (unintended) imperfections that will require advanced cell repair technologies for successful resuscitation.

Perhaps those same advanced technologies could produce a form of biostasis that avoids the crude consequences of contemporary chemical fixation by making precise modifications within and between cells to arrest metabolism and decomposition.

Looking for discussion of this idea, Brian Wowk pointed this writer to Eric Drexler who envisioned such a form of warm biostasis in Engines of Creation. In chapter 7 (section 5) Drexler calls this form of warm biostasis “anesthesia plus:”

To see how one approach would work, imagine that the blood stream carries simple molecular devices to tissues, where they enter the cells. There they block the molecular machinery of metabolism – in the brain and elsewhere – and tie structures together with stabilizing cross-links. Other molecular devices then move in, displacing water and packing themselves solidly around the molecules of the cell. These steps stop metabolism and preserve cell structures.

This procedure would produce a state in which the person will appear to be dead (and warm) for all practical purposes:

If a patient in this condition were turned over to a present-day physician ignorant of the capabilities of cell repair machines, the consequences would likely be grim. Seeing no signs of life, the physician would likely conclude that the patient was dead, and then would make this judgment a reality by “prescribing” an autopsy, followed by burial or burning.

Such a form of warm biostasis would not only produce a true molecular alternative to cryonics, it would also enable long-duration space travel and could be employed as a means to provide trauma care in emergency situations. These kind of applications of molecular nanotechnology are extremely advanced and, as a result, literature, either fiction or non-fiction, about them is virtually non-existent. It seems that the first rigorous treatment of cellular and whole-body warm biostasis will be published in Robert Freitas’ Nanomedicine Volume IIB and Nanomedicine Volume III (personal correspondence).

Perhaps the future of biostasis will be an advanced form of chemical fixation after all.