Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nanotechnology and you

Sixty-one year old futurologist Ray Kurzweil could recently be heard talking about -- what else? -- the future on the BBC radio program, Interview Classic.  He so wants to be part of the future that he envisions that he takes 150 pills a day to keep himself healthy until a time when he can download his brain to a computer chip, thus transcending his body which he will no longer need. Well, we'll let him explain:
When I was 40 I came out at 38 on biological aging test, I’m now 61 and I come out close to 40.  If only age 2, 3 years in the last 20 years, so that really is feasible.  Now, I take a lot of supplements, I eat a certain diet, I exercise, I take about 150 pills a day and you’ll say, “Ray you really think taking all these pills is going to able you to live hundreds of years?”  No.  The point of this whole program, bridge one, is just to get to bridge two.  Bridge two is a full flowering of this biotechnology revolution where we will have far more powerful method to really reprogram our genes, away from aging and away from disease and that’s about 15 to 20 years away so the whole point of bridge one is to get to that point in good health.   And it’s not a point that we’ll do this, I’ll do this for 15 years and nothing will happen and suddenly we’ll have the whole thing I mean, every year in fact it’s almost everyday new developments come out already from this biotechnology revolution but 15 years from now we’ll be a very mature technology and we’ll have a much easier time of slowing down stopping and even reversing this aging and disease processes.  That’s bridge two and that will bring us to bridge 3 maybe 25 years from now.  The nanotechnology revolution were we can have billions of nanobots keeping us healthy at the level of every cell on our body and that will go in our brains and extend our brains enable us to backup ultimately the information in our brains.  Those technologies will ultimately give us very dramatic extensions to our longevity.

Got it?  So, why should we believe this guy on this?

To establish his credibility, he was asked what predictions he has been right about in the past.  His list includes foreseeing the doubling of the power of ARPANET every year in the early 1980's to become the world wide interconnection of communication that we know now as the internet, the demise of the Soviet Union in the '80's because of the democratizing effects of decentralized communication, that a computer would take the world chess championship by 1988, and more.  Is there anything you've been wrong about? he was asked.  Maybe he was off by a few years on some of his predictions, he said, but that's about it when it comes to predicting the speed by which technology changes, and its effects.

That's all well and good, and he apparently does have an impressive track record when it comes to predictions about technology. Unfortunately, he's not on such solid ground when it comes to predictions based on understanding genetics and evolution -- since he doesn't seem to understand either.

"Within 30 years human experience in total will be transformed by technology," he said.  We now have the genome, which "by the way, it's obsolete because it evolved thousands of years ago."

The interviewer was surprised at the idea that the human genome is obsolete, protesting that it has worked pretty well. There are nearly 10 billion people around to prove it, too!  And we dominate the earth.  That's failure for you!

No, said Kurzweil, it's actually worked pretty poorly.  Our genes evolved in a very different environment from the one we're living in now.  Wrong!  Our genes evolved up to yesterday, when we inherited them; they're only as old as we are, and it's very likely that there will be even more copies of it 25 years from now! 

We get diabetes, he said, because we evolved in a time when we needed genes that allowed us to sequester calories as fat, during famine, and now when we're surrounded by unlimited calories, we eat too much and store too much fat.  This idea is known as the "thrifty gene hypothesis" (a misreading of a theory that the geneticist James Neel proposed long ago in a somewhat different context). We guess that to Kurzweil, dying is proof that a genome doesn't work well.

Also, as he says, we've found "genes that promote cancer and heart disease, we'd like to turn those off."  Or, as he puts it,"We'd like to change the software."

So, let's stop there (though there's much much more if you care to listen to the interview).  So many misconceptions in so little time!  Our genome didn't evolve "thousands of years ago", it is the product of 4 billion years of evolution, and of course it hasn't stopped evolving.  The idea that because it is old, it's obsolete is utterly non-biological, and based on his next misperception, which is that the genome is the software that makes us what we are.  Does this mean there was a master programmer?   With an ultimate design in mind?  Or, that the environment no longer has an effect?  Or, and this is the most important thing, that we aren't adaptable to change?  If this were true, the first Twinkie you ate, being not the raw meat or betel nut your long ago ancestors grew up on, would have killed you.  Even granola would be lethal.

And as for "genes that promote cancer and heart disease, we'd like to turn those off."  We've got genes sitting around dormant for decades, waiting for just the right time to give us cancer or heart attacks?  It's a common misconception that genes 'for' diseases do only one thing and that is cause disease (indeed, many genes have even been named for the disease they are associated with, such as breast cancer genes or genes 'for' Alzheimer's disease), but most genes are involved in numerous normal functions, and if you "turn them off", you'd destroy essential functions. 

Kurzweil conflates technology with biology and evolution -- technology really does become obsolete, and software really does tell the computer literally everything it does.  But genes and genomes don't follow that model.  Kurzweil is right that nanotechnology is already being used therapeutically, and it will surely become more and more useful (though will do nothing to bring down the cost of medical care -- or cure malaria or TB), but his idea that in 25 years nanotechnology will be fixing all the things wrong with our genes is a basic misunderstanding of how genes work.

But does his biological naivete negate his idea that we'll all be downloading our brains within 25 years?  Well, what does that mean?  Will your consciousness reside in two places at once (a new version of mind-body duality!)?  Will your consciousness on the PC (or, better, iMac) be the same as your wet-ware one?

The obsolescence of our genomes reflected in our mortality is an interesting take, too.  Yes, we wear out and die (by the way, we're assuming here, as Kurzweil must, that there's no eternal afterlife!).  But what about the You-server on which your essence is downloaded?  If it's a machine, it too will die....even become obsolete!  I mean, I wouldn't have wanted to be downloaded to 5 1/4" floppies or magnetic tape!

But, Kurzweil would likely reply that in each new generation of hypertech your "I" would be simply transfered, byte by byte, to the new medium.  That's not so different from transmitting yourself to a baby, except that it's hermaphroditic.  But there's another problem here.  The electronic solution means that no matter how the world changed, you won't!  500 years from now, you'll still be you, and you'll still be singing the songs of the 21st century.  Unless.....unless, Kurzweil thinks that perhaps we'll omit checking our parity bits from time to time and allow some change in our wiring.

That's a clever twist, and it probably would work!  But it's not totally new: it's called evolution, and we've already got that very well solved with our native wet-ware as it is.

Indeed, the idea of putting our brains in computer data banks is not new.  Much of your brain is on your computer now: things you don't memorize but want access to, documents of your brain activity during your life, resources like Wiki, and the like.  And the same has been true for ages. We call it books.

Whether your entire brain which is a 4-dimensional phenomenon can be made into a flat .txt file, or some computer-science storage advance, is unknowable at present (by anyone but Kurzweil, anyway).  Surely more and more knowledge may be downloadable.  Maybe even by direct neural signal sending.

But if Kurzweil's explanations are what's going, this is naive biology posing as insight.

Then again, post-biological beings may already be old news.

1 comment:

James Goetz said...

I suppose that if Kurzweil's cyborg nanotechnology could back up our thoughts, then we could also download and install all kinds of knowledge. Perhaps Kurzweil's talent includes sci-fi authorship, but that still depends on the ability to develop characters and plots.