100 Days Blog

Day 090 - Aliens and dinosaurs

Submitted by Sam on 19 August, 2011 - 01:44

Extinction events like nuclear war or nanotechnological catastrophe could undoubtedly shorten the communicating phase of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, but these kind of global mass extinctions can't always be the end of the story, as the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction has already shown here on earth.

Our own mas-extinction event, which occurred roughly 65 million years ago, wiped out most of the life on earth, but crucially, not all of it. It is marked by a thin geological boundary separating dinosaur fossils from all other fossils, and is widely theorized to have been caused either by an asteroid impact or by increased volcanic activity which disrupted earth's ecology so massively that most living things were wiped out forever.

Some species survived the catastrophe, however, allowing life on earth to continue evolving, finally producing human civilization. That some of these species were reptiles as large as crocodiles suggests that the KT extinction event was not perhaps as all-powerful as a man-made (or alien-made) mass-extinction would be, but it nevertheless raises an important point. This is that life is hugely adaptable, and that even if the most 'highly-evolved' species on the planet is driven to extinction, there is more than likely always another to take its place.

Indeed, in the case of nuclear holocaust, mankind or an alien race could quite easily obliterate itself entirely, and yet leave a thriving new ecosystem of lesser lifeforms behind. In this instance, lifeforms adapted to resist heat and radiation would continue to live on long after the extinction event, able to continue evolving over many generations to produce higher forms of life once more. Insects are good candidates as survivors of a man-made extinction event that we could rely on to perpetuate life on a ravaged earth, perhaps one day evolving once more into a society capable of dropping atomic bombs again.

If not insects, then there are extremophilic bacteria which thrive in conditions that would be hazardous to all other life. In fact, some bacteria are well-suited to a whole range of hazardous environments, and could survive and flourish even in the harshest of post-apocalyptic worlds. The bacterium D. radiodurans is one such polyextremophile, and can live through huge doses of radiation (it has the unique ability to repair its own damaged DNA), and can survive in vacuums, acid, extreme cold and dehydration. T. gammatolerans is even more radiation resistant still.

So, even if every intelligent civilization always destroys itself, there will almost always be organisms left after the extinction event to continue evolution. And if intelligence is a logical development of evolution, then after a few hundred million years (which is not very long at all on the galactic timescale) a new civilization will emerge capable of broadcasting its existence to the universe, and, incedentally, capable of destroying itself once more. And yet despite the possibility for cyclical extinctions and rebirths of extraterrestrial civilizations, we still have not detected even the faintest hint of another intelligence in our universe. If self-extinction cannot provide a universal answer to the Fermi Paradox, then where is everybody?

Day 089 - Aliens and auto-extinction

Submitted by Sam on 18 August, 2011 - 02:12

Recognition of our new-found ability to annihilate our planet through our own technology has lead to counter-technology protests, mass demonstrations and international movements to limit our ability to destroy ourselves, manifest principally through voluntary nuclear disarmament. The threat of accidental mass extinction posed by nuclear, biological and chemical technologies has motivated terrorist attacks targeting groups perceived to perpetuate development of these areas. Terrorists like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, have called for revolution against industrialized civilization and modern technology, advocating a return to a non-civilized state, partly in an attempt to defuse the potential timebomb of technological global threats. Most recently, a terrorist group in Mexico attacked two robotics researchers with specialities in nanotechnology with mail bombs. The group, whose name can be translated as the 'Individuals Tending to Savagery', has published a manifesto expressing fears that nanotechnology will result in nano-bacteriological war or an explosion of nano-pollution that will destroy life as we know it.

If the threat of mass-extinction can come from so many technologies in so many diverse ways, whether by accident or by design, then it follows that the more developed a civilization becomes the greater its risk of wiping itself grows. This trend has been suggested as a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox, which describes the contradiction between the current predictions for vast numbers of potentially suitable environments for life in the Universe and the lack of any evidence we have for their existence. Given the age of the Universe (more than thirteen billion years by current measurements), and given the millions of stars in our galaxy – not to mention the millions of galaxies in the universe – it seems statistically highly probable that there are vast numbers of life-bearing planets beyond our own. Of these planets, it also seems highly probable that a fraction will develop into intelligent civilizations, and that of these a further fraction will prosper and develop technologies that will leave some kind of detectable signature, be it through alterations to star systems through space colonization or merely through the development of technologies with effects which are observable from a distance, like radio emissions. But to date, no such artifacts of alien life have been identified, and hence the Fermi Paradox.

For some, part of the reason we have been unable to find any signs of extraterrestrial life is that their 'window' of communication, of signalling their technologically developed state to the universe at large, would inevitably be closed prematurely due to some kind of unavoidable technological holocaust, like the nuclear annihilation humanity has teetered on in the past, or like the nanotech apocalypse that some fear today.

Day 088 - Dangers of nanotechnology

Submitted by Sam on 17 August, 2011 - 02:11

Alongside the catalogue of beneficial uses of nanotechnology, there are very clear dangers associated with its unregulated proliferation. Like the powerful technologies which have realized weapons of mass destruction, nanotechnology has the potential for unimaginable destructive abuse and catastrophic accidents, but with a crucial difference. To successfully weaponize nuclear, biological and chemical technologies access to highly protected information, rare raw materials and expensive equipment is typically required, effectively limiting their use to states and large groups. When nanotechnology proliferates, which it will do with exponential rapidity if it ever does, its immense destructive power will be well within the reach of individuals and small groups. With nanofactories, appropriate design specifications and the commonest of raw materials, individuals in their homes would be empowered to make mistakes so dangerous and weapons so potent that the extinction of all life on earth would become a real possibility.

Like nuclear technology, nanotechnology has very clear utility for militaries and terrorists, and it seems likely that in its longterm, its destructive uses may well be far easier to realize on an irreversible scale than its constructive uses. Nano-scale self-replicating machines have been a widespread concern in this respect, as they could conceivably rapidly and exponentially reproduce, being too tough and numerous to stop. This has been popularized as the nanotech 'grey goo' doomsday scenario, whereby the out-of-control nanorobots – whether accidentally evolved or purposefully designed – replicate to consume all resources on earth. However, nanoscale fabrication has no explicit need for self-replicators, as they would be needlessly complex and inefficient for molecular manufacturing when compared with highly optimized nanofactories, which are essentially self-contained and present no threat in themselves.

Despite this market pressure against the creation of self-replicators, given a long enough timescale, a large enough population and an easy access to nanofabrication, the threat of a weaponized or mutant variant cannot be discounted; all it takes is one to be made or evolved, and without effective and well-prepared safeguards the entire planet could be consumed within days. The only barrier to this potential destruction will be the distribution of knowledge of how to build such a thing. With the model of open-source software as a perverse example, it seems that such a barrier will always eventually be porous, as motivated individuals will always find a way to emulate those things which are otherwise in restricted domains. Again, given a concerted collaborative effort (consider a covert nanoweapon wiki) over a long enough period of time the potential for disaster is grave.

Day 087 - Nanotech promises

Submitted by Sam on 16 August, 2011 - 01:09

There are immense consequences to molecular nanotechnology advancing to the level of functional programmable molecular assemblers and productive nanofactories, the implications of which have been studied, debated and systematized since Eric Drexler published his seminal book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation, in 1986. Indeed, the Foresight Institute, which Drexler co-founded in the same year as its publication, has been working steadily to promote awareness of transformative technologies like nanotech, and to enhance knowledge and promote the critical discussion which will ensure that these technologies are put to safe and beneficial use.

And the beneficial uses of nanotechnology are manifold. In its mature form, molecular assembly will slash the cost of manufacturing every type of product, reducing the cost of producing even today's most expensive commodities, like computer chips, aeroplanes, missiles, surgical tools etc., towards a bottom limit which will be set by the cost of the raw materials and energy, amounting to only a few pennies per kilogram. The only significant cost will be an initial expenditure in the design of the products, because as soon as a blueprint exists molecular assemblers will be able to churn out enough copies to satisfy any demand very, very quickly. This development has the potential to utterly upset our current market structure, rewrite all intellectual property laws and regulations, and disrupt the world economy like nothing before.

Not only will nanotechnology greatly reduce the cost of manufacturing today's products, it will allow us to improve and upgrade them with new nano-materials, many times stronger and lighter than anything we have in existence today. These new materials will open up possibilities for further new technologies that we cannot possibly predict, and enhance those that already exist beyond recognition. Inexpensive, and radically strong and lightweight materials will very literally expand the frontiers of human endeavour, enabling widespread space exploration as cost- and energy-efficient spacecraft become a commonplace.

Nanotechnology promises to fuel such spacecraft cleanly. It will make renewable energy viable, allowing molecular solar cells to be manufactured on such a widespread scale that they could be used to coat roads and roofs everywhere, providing enough clean energy to satisfy the entire world's demands. Indeed, the nanofactory manufacturing revolution promises the greenest of futures, not only solving the global energy crisis but also removing the root cause of much of the world's pollution itself, eradicating all traditional industrial processes and their hazardous by-products and chemical pollution. Nanofactories will work with a molecular efficiency designed to produce no pollutants at all.

On top of these industrial and environmental potentials, nanotechnology also carries the promise of a completely new type of medicine – one that could potentially cure all diseases and stop and reverse ageing entirely. Medical nanorobots could repair and defend bodies on the cellular level, performing molecular surgery to repair our own biological nano-machines and destroy cancer cells.

Day 086 - Molecular assemblers and nanofactories

Submitted by Sam on 15 August, 2011 - 03:30

The same principles which apply to everyday mechanical engineering can be implemented on the nanometer scale, allowing hypothetical systems to combine atoms and molecules to create atomically precise components that can in turn be joined together to make macroscopic wholes, just as factory production lines today assemble (much less precise) pieces into large, complex objects.

Unlike factories today, machine movements at the nanometer scale are millions of times faster than our current 'human-scale' processes, and will allow hugely complex products – like billion-core laptops – to be assembled in hours or days. These molecular machines will be able to bond virtually any combination of molecules together in any stable pattern, adding a few atoms at a time in a structured three-dimensional layering approach to produce machines and products that are stronger, lighter, more efficient and smaller than anything our traditional manufacturing processes could ever achieve.

The basic components of the nanofactories which will be capable of this universal engineering are molecular assemblers, or fabricators. They will be able to tolerate freezing or boiling, acid or vacuum, and will let us build anything that the physical laws of the universe allow to exist, limited only by our own ability to design. Nanofactories would contain trillions of these molecular assemblers, arranged into an orderly array, each working on a minute fraction of the finished workpiece, a nanoblock, passing the finished pieces along a nanoscale assembly line – made from molecular conveyor belts, molecular pulleys and grabbers – to be joined together by increasingly large assembly stations.

The nanofactories will be built from a highly modular, repetitive and scalable architecture, and will be able to fit onto a tabletop. Once the first nanofactory has been built, it could be programmed to build another nanofactory in a matter of days, and then nanofactories could proliferate exponentially until the world's demand was satisfied. With the correct designs, enough power, and with enough chemical feedstock (the raw materials that the nanofactory uses to synthesize its products), these factories will be able to build anything we can imagine.

Day 085 - Nanotechnology

Submitted by Sam on 14 August, 2011 - 00:50

The kind of protein engineering used by Angela Belcher to coerce biological machinery into building useful structures from inorganic materials highlights our growing ability to build things from the bottom-up, in a movement which breaks away from the ancient technological trend of bulk technology – which created everything from flint axes to silicon chips from processes involving the manipulation of many millions, billions and trillions of molecules at once – to technology working with ever finer precision down to the molecular level. As our molecular engineering capabilities have enhanced, we have made significant steps in manipulating matter on the atomic level, building structures atom by atom.

This is the emerging field of molecular nanotechnology, which promises complex machines on the molecular level. Unlike the mechanical and chemical technologies which power manufacturing today, reliant on crude processes like chopping and cutting, pounding and heating, advanced molecular manufacturing will work entirely from the bottom up, handling individual atoms and molecules with incredible control and precision, able to fabricate almost anything imaginable.

Today, most materials, even those modified by chemists and material scientists, are manipulated indirectly, perhaps by commandeering the existing nano-structuring properties of biological nanomachines like viruses and bacteria, and using imprecise process like mixing and heating. Nanotechnology promises a programmable molecular assembler which will be able to make almost any desired pattern of atoms, and therefore almost any structure or material, with utmost precision, revolutionizing the world more fundamentally than anything before; ultimately replacing all traditional manufacturing processes entirely, and upgrading and replacing all of today's crudely hewn products.

There is a huge precedent for the success of creating programmable nano-scale machinery provided by nature: all living things are composed in part from naturally evolved nano-machines. Enzymes, for instance, are molecular machines which build, break and rearrange the bonds in other molecules in a structured and highly specialized fashion. DNA serves as a nano-scale data-storage system, like a computer hard drive, encoding digital instructions at the molecular level which are then passed on to ribosomes, molecular machines which translate these instructions into the manufacture of protein molecules. Plants gather the energy they need using molecular-level solar collectors, made from nano-scale electronic reaction centres housed in their chloroplasts. In fact, in this light, trees are more sophisticated and more complex than the most finely engineered electronic devices that we can produce today. And they can make wood and leaves, gather solar energy, and replicate their molecular machines without generating toxic waste, noise or excess heat.

Day 084 - Growing batteries

Submitted by Sam on 13 August, 2011 - 03:11

Angela Belcher is a materials scientist at MIT. As a graduate student at the University of California, she elucidated the molecular assembly system by which certain molluscs create their protective shells. Shells like those of the abalone sea snail which she studied are biocomposite materials made from both organic protein (2% of the shell's mass) and inorganic calcium carbonate (98% by mass), and are created by the action of proteins encoded by genes. These particular proteins are negatively charged, and pull positively charged calcium ions from the snail's environment into layers which accrete between the proteins, forming a structure thousands of times stronger than the individual materials that compose it – abalone shells are much tougher and stronger than chalk, for instance, which is also made from calcium carbonate.

Fascinated by the interaction between living protein and its control of calcium to create a nano-engineered shell – all specified by a certain DNA sequence – Belcher recognized that any element from the periodic table could theoretically be manipulated by a corresponding DNA sequence into forming any kind of structure. By finding the appropriate DNA code, these structures could hypothetically be created from materials natural evolution had never before worked with, and coaxed into shapes never naturally occurring.

With the goal of creating DNA sequences that could code for the synthesis of any useful material, Belcher and her team started by genetically engineering a long, tubular virus through a process of selective evolution to coat itself with inorganic materials including gold and cobalt oxide. The long viruses now formed tiny lengths of nanowire, which the group was able to engineer together in 2009 to form the basic components of a powerful and compact battery. These new batteries, specified by genes that produce proteins that manipulate inorganic materials, have the same energy capacity as the latest batteries specified for powering hybrid cars.

Whilst conventional batteries generate a lot of waste during production and contain harmful materials that make clean and safe disposal a problem, the genetically engineered viral batteries produce practically no waste, growing themselves through an environmentally friendly process at room temperature, using only water as a solvent. As they are grown on an organic substrate, they are also at least partially biodegradable.

This kind of work synthesizes expertise from several disciplines, using the power of genetic engineering to produce nanotechnology applicable to the electronic world. Belcher's work shows the viability of repurposing biological processes for the construction and control of (largely) inorganic structures like virally-grown and evolutionary optimized batteries and solar cells, grown through energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly processes.

Day 083 - Genetic upgrades

Submitted by Sam on 12 August, 2011 - 00:19

Colour blindness, or the inability to distinguish between certain colour combinations, can either be acquired or inherited, and affects about 8% of males and 0.5% of females in some way. It is one of the most common and best understood genetic anomalies, having first been self-diagnosed over two-hundred years ago by chemist John Dalton.

Non-colour blind people are trichromats; they possess three different photopigments sensitive to three different wavelengths of the visible spectrum in the photoreceptive cells of their eyes. Individuals with inherited colour blindness cannot express all three of these photopigments in their eyes and therefore are sensitive to only a limited range of the spectrum. In the most common form of colour-blindness the lack of a single pigment leads to a difficulty in distinguishing between red and green. Less common forms of colour blindess include monochromats, those lacking the genes for two pigments, and anchromatopsic people, those lacking all three pigments, and who can only see in black and white.

Experiments with mammals – from mice to primates – have demonstrated that colour vision can be conferred through gene-therapy. Genes encoding for the production of the previously missing photopigment have been delivered to colour-blind animals through a specially modified virus vector, injected directly into the back of the eye. Once expressed, the treated animals gain the full complement of pigments, and gain full colour vision, as tested by various behavioural tests. This therapy has brought full colour vision to animals that have never had it before; male squirrel monkeys are naturally dichromatic, and therefore have difficulty in distinguishing between certain shades of red and green. Following the gene therapy to confer the human photopigment gene, the monkeys exhibited behaviour consistent with trichromatic vision: their vision and perception of the world had been upgraded.

Whilst there has been success in curing colour blindness in animals, there are currently no clinical trials planned for humans. This is largely because colour blindness is considered a mild disability, and the procedure to cure it carries risks of eye infection potentially much greater than the benefits it brings. However, the success of the treatment in introducing new colour ranges to primates suggests that our own brains will also be able to adapt to new colour ranges. This has the rather profound consequence that one day it may just be possible to add an additional receptor to our eyes using gene therapy which will upgrade our vision so that we could see ultraviolet light, like bees do. With one more pigment, we could add yet another colour to our perceptual palette and would be able to share the pentachromatic world of Papilio butterflies.

Day 082 - Performance enhancing drugs

Submitted by Sam on 11 August, 2011 - 00:57

Drugs originally designed to treat medical conditions are frequently becoming repurposed for non medical uses (and vice-versa as recreational drugs like marajuana are repurposed for therapeutic purposes). Examples include the drugs that were originally designed to combat attention deficit disorder, such as Modafinil and Ritalin, finding new off-label use as sleep depressants and as enhancers of alertness and concentration. Vascular endothelial growth factors, used clinically to promote the growth of new blood vessels after injury, have found utility with athletes wanting to pump more blood to gain competitive advantage. People are willing to go to great lengths to succeed, and many voluntarily alter their bodies with drugs and therapies to achieve their goals; sometimes even using growth factors to reclaim the hormone levels of their youth, resisting the decline of ageing to restore their 'natural' level of performance.

Drugs are now beginning to target our genes themselves, using retroviruses as delivery mechanisms to infect cells with new genetic code. Whilst most gene therapy trials to date have either failed or suffered from debilitating side-effects, some success are beginning to show the potential of this treatment. As we refine gene therapy techniques and begin to understand more about its processes, the trend of therapeutic repurposing is likely to extend to this new technology, and some people will undoubtedly want to alter their genes for non-medical purposes.

Eero Mäntyranta, former Finnish Olympic skier, initially suspected of doping, was found to have a naturally occurring genetic mutation which increased his red blood cell mass, and therefore oxygen carrying capacity and thus physical fitness, in much the same way that drugs used to treat anaemia, like Erythropoietin, have been used by world-class cyclists in the Tour de France to drive performance boosts of up to fifteen percent above normal. This means that there is a very thin line between genetic performance enhancers and 'artificial' performance enhancers, which is becoming increasingly blurred the more we come to understand the roles of our hereditary genes. Indeed, a study of twins recently argued that two-thirds of genetic ability is determined by the inheritance of genes related to athlete status. It is now feasible to analyze genes for endurance and fitness before a child is even born, and we already have a library of over two-hundred gene variants which correspond to improved athletic performance, including those that increase the prevalence of fast twitch muscles, increase aerobic capacity and increase cardio-respiratory fitness.

As we decode our genes, it is becoming increasingly clear that some athletes have an 'unfair' natural advantage simply through the virtue of being born with a certain sequence of proteins in their genome. Is it fair that these people, through no fault or effort of their own, are being rewarded for having a gene that results in a 25% extra increase in their oxygen carrying capacity?

Day 081 - Cloning

Submitted by Sam on 10 August, 2011 - 04:05

Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are artificially induced stem cells which resemble embryonic stem cells, and they may just hold the key to the much-needed revolution in regenerative medicine, promising patient-specific cell-types which can be used to grow tailor-made replacement organs and tissues.

In 2009, two independent Chinese teams made the announcement that they had taken skin cells from mice (which are already specialized, and not stem cells) and successfully chemically treated them into de-differentiating into pluripotent stells cells, tricking them, in effect, into thinking they had just been born and reprogramming them into a pluripotent state.

As each cell in a body contains that body's entire genome, each cell contains the genetic code necessary to create every single body part, and thus has the ability to create a complete copy of the entire body. Not only did the researchers de-differentiate the mice skin cells, but they also used new techniques to allow these stem cells to re-grow, differentiate once again and create a whole new living mouse. Xiao Xiao, the first of twenty-seven such mice to be created using the process, has since been seen as a landmark step in the future of stem-cell therapy, not least because she and her siblings were able to mate and give birth to healthy offspring, who in turn produced new generations of mice themselves. The success of this procedure suggests that one day humans could, in theory, take a cell from anywhere in their bodies and create full, fertile clones of themselves. In a genetic sense, this procedure could allow each one of our cells to make an immortal line of clones of ourselves.

The desirability of human cloning leads to some obvious questions, which Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans have summed up, starting with the most basic, 'do we really want to clone ourselves?'. The first consideration in answering this question is how safe and reproducible the technology for doing so is, which, if satisfied, leads on to more philosophical questions, such as 'have I mated to produce children whose genome improves the species more than my own?'. As Enriquez and Gullans put it, “are your kids better than you?” – if they are, then you don't have a strong case for cloning yourself. When the cloning question gets really interesting, though, is when we consider the possibility of mind-uploading and downloading. If we could save our mind and experiences, and continuously copy it into new bodies over the centuries, the idea of cloning suddenly becomes mythically attractive.

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