Biotechnology and nanotechnology are complex domains of work, actively engaged in by a growing number of science and technology professionals around the world. When linked with information technology (on which both of these domains depend) we have a convergent technology intensive industry emerging around the world. We should also add what are known as “cognitive technologies” – see The Cognitive Technology Journal at http://www.memoryzine.com/cognitivetechnolgy.html - which are the skills and processes required for engaging in complex tasks and the basis for simulation and artificial intelligence. These so-called family of BINC (bio, nano, info and cognitive) technologies will together shape the future of health, education and other areas.
For example, work is in progress on an artificial pancreas (biotech), which uses minute sensors flowing in the blood stream to monitor in millisecond speed the glucose level in the blood. A small implanted computer sends signals to the pancreas which then adjusts its activities so that blood sugar levels are regulated. The implanted computer uses continuous simulation of ideal states as the basis for “its decisions” as to what messages to send. (For more information see an article in The Daily Californian (http://www.dailycal.org/article.php?id=15896) August 31st 2004.
Using powerful computers, Professor Christoph Sensen at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine has built a powerful, three dimension space (a little like the 3D room on Star Trek) known as the CAVE. Here 3D images taken from MRI scans can be experienced – a doctor can walk inside the brain of a patient he is about to operate on and see the tumour she hopes to remove and the way it is connected to other local tissue. She can then simulate the surgery and look at “what if” using complex artificial intelligence and smart technology tools that mirror the actions of scalpels.
Another use of the CAVE is to look at "what if" scenarios. The example Professor Sensen uses is of a person injured in a car accident with significant facial damage. Using all of the available information, computer simulations of the actions of the tongue and its role in speech, swallowing and regular human functioning can be simulated. If surgery is required to reduce the size of the tongue so as to save a significant facial feature, the CAVE can help the surgeon see just how much of the tongue they can remove without it affecting core functions (or, put another way, know the full impact of the decision they are about to make).
These bioengineering examples are powerful, but become more powerful when we look at them from a nanotechnology perspective. When we coat a drug with nano substances that permit: (a) time release of the drug; (b) the drug to attach to cells that match specified characteristics – e.g. diseased cells versus healthy cells, so they only attach to cancerous cells and not to the healthy ones surrounding them; (c) the drug to send signals back to the outside world from inside the body indicating progress – then we have technologies that could massively change the way medicine works. Now imagine being able to simulate all of these cell transactions in the CAVE – how would this help speed drug design (and testing).
All of these are part of a coming wave of bio-nano-information and cognitive (the BINC world) technologies for medical developments which will, over the next twenty years, change our world.
But they raise important issues. These issues are explored fully in a powerful new book by Ray Kurzweil The Singularity is Near (http://www.singularity.com/). Kurzweil should be taken seriously. He holds some twenty patents, is widely regarded as amongst the best scientific foresight persons in the world and has an outstanding intellect – just look at his website for more (http://www.kurzweilai.net/index.html?flash=1). His argument is this: the singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly non-biological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today. It requires us to harness the global power of intelligent machines and devices in the service of our future. He suggests that technology is a continuation of the life-improvement process commonly called evolution. DNA created biological life forms. Biological life forms advanced over eons and developed Homo sapiens. Their big brains and opposing thumbs and forefingers made them adept toolmakers. Today their cutting-edge tools -- computers, software, gene-splicing techniques and nanotechnology -- are poised for integration with human biological systems to evolve a hybrid life form.
Kurzweil says progress occurs at an exponential rate. At first, things take forever. Eons elapsed between the primordial soup and Homo sapiens. It took thousands of years for the hunter-gatherers to get their hands on the computer mouse. But once that happened, things started to get interesting, and quickly.
Now gadgets like cell phones get smaller, faster and cheaper thanks to Moore's Law, which says microprocessor power doubles every 18 months or so. Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns posits that this same exponential pace governs efforts to splice DNA, unravel genomes, reverse-engineer the brain and develop nanotech machines.
Given all these developments, converging at exponential rates, Kurzweil considers it inevitable that our own technological creations will infuse new capabilities into human biological systems that have been resting on their evolutionary laurels for the last 100,000 years or so. "We will combine the subtle capabilities of human intelligence, which is basically pattern recognition," he said in San Francisco, "with the things that a thousand-dollar computer can already do better than us."
Technological implants will improve our bodies, he claims, citing a research paper that theorizes how nanotechnologists might build respirocytes -- artificial red blood cells that can carry 236 times more oxygen than the natural alternative. "We will not just have designer babies," he quipped, "but designer Baby Boomers."
Kurzweil believes post-Singularity humans will cheat death. He writes: "When our human hardware crashes ... software-based humans ... will live out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality."
The examples cited at the beginning of this article show the benefits of these kind of developments. When we have an artificial pancreas holding out a real solution for Type 1 diabetes just 5-6 years from now, then elements of Kurzweil’s vision of the future are desirable – technological implants prolonging life and in doing so making it more bearable.
But imagine the use of implants which are inappropriate – in the hands of Mugabe, for example.
Its time to integrate another group of thinkers into the BINC world – ethicists so that we start to explore the social consequences of the work we are all engaged in as it develops in the laboratory and before we have to confront dramatic choices which will confront us.