Nanotechnology

I recently attended a concert in La Jolla and was staggered at the number of walkers that were parked in the lobby, waiting for their owners inside.  Setting aside the problem of matching walkers to absent-minded owners after the concert, I was struck by how far our technology has lagged behind our ability to extend life.  Let’s face it, walkers or wheel chairs are pretty crude solutions to the decay of our bodies.

Fortunately, nanotechnology and prosthetics promise solution that get more to the heart of the matter.

From a medical standpoint, the Holy Grail of nanotechnology is the creation of molecular-scale robots, whose sole purpose in life is to cure diseases.  Running on chemical engines, programmed with molecular codes, nanobots hold out the promise of being the successors to the antibiotics that pathogens are getting so skillful at evading.  They will be able to seek out resistant invaders and directly attack them.

And more.  It will probably not be too long in the future when your oncologist, instead of cutting you open, irradiating you, and then feeding you poisonous chemicals, will be giving you an injection of millions of nanobots programmed to search and destroy your very own particular type of cancer.

In the field of prosthetics, nanotechnology is working to create artificial muscles to supplement our own failing ones.  Instead of walkers, we may someday be able to strap on high tech Lycra suits to make us mobile again.

I have a sort of vision of all these lithe looking folks strolling around with their wizened faces peaking out of the top of their supports.  Not exactly my dream of golden years, but then I’ve never had to depend on a walker.

But we can go further than that.  A recent experiment used gene therapy to treat a rare form of blindness.  Targeting a specific defective gene, a virus replaced the defective version with a normal version.  The results were good for all the patients, but for the younger members, it was fantastic.  Their receptors were literally thousands of times more sensitive to light.

One could argue that gene therapy using viruses to splice new/repaired DNA coding into living cells is really turning the viruses into nanobots.  So now we can envision a future where we will be injected with viruses and other nanobots not just to cure disease, but to edit our DNA to correct the effects of aging on our muscles, bones, and organs.  In fact, that may someday become the equivalent of the vaccinations we once got to prevent our “normal” childhood diseases.  The time may come when having corrective nanobots floating around in the bloodstream, busily making repairs, may be defined as normal.

Since the brain would probably be an area we would not like to have our nanobots editing, a new vision of our future arises.  Instead of our aged selves encased in prosthetic Lycra, now we can see ourselves as truly lithe and young looking, with muscular bodies, dense bones, good teeth…and unable to remember where we left the car keys.

I said above that, for the medical community, targeted nanobots was the Holy Grail.  That’s true.  But for the nanotech community at large, self-replication is the Holy Grail.  Let’s suppose you want to use nanobots to target, say, kudzu.  Obviously, having a few thousand or even a few million incredibly expensive nanobots just isn’t going to cut it.  The madly procreative kudzu will outrun you every time.  On the other hand, if you could make nanobots that would make more nanobots on their own, the race would be a lot more even.

This, of course, brings on the Nightmare Scenario.  In the case of nanobots, that scenario rejoices in the name of the Gray Goo.

Imagine you’ve made a batch of nanobots that can self-replicate and live only to eat kudzu.  What happens when they finally run out of kudzu?  Presumably, they would simply die from lack of fuel.  But, like bacteria, no replication process is ever 100% perfect.  There would always be some nanobots that would be a little different.  Instead of dying off, these little wonders would develop a liking for, say, wheat.  Their brethren having died off, and thereby eliminated any competition, they would be able to attack the wheat fields with no competition.

Having eliminated the wheat, they would, in their turn, begin to die off.  But, once again, some variants might survive with an appetite for, say, meat.  And so it would go.  Eventually, you might have a giant gray blob of hungry, highly adaptive nanobots advancing across the world.

So here is a final vision of our future: Having created young-bodied, indefinitely healthy selves, perhaps with even our brains rejuvenated, we become nothing more than food for our most lasting invention…our successor, the Great Gray Goo.

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