Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nanotech is so 21st Century

What would it mean to you if you knew you would never die of old age? If you knew it was possible to live "forever" (at least, until the big rip or big chill)? This is becoming a rather large question looming on the horizon, because in the very near future, this will be a possibility. I read an interesting article that comes down to through H+ magazine today dealing with just that.

I also read another article dealing with a very interesting concept. I've always got my eye on potential post-singularity technology, and that's actual the one that named this article. Think something similar to Blood Music, because that's what comes to mind here - putting femtocomputers in your DNA, and using longevity treatment to eliminate aging and the effects of aging. So, let's get the new year off right with a post about the future. 2012? Please. That's so 2009. You aren't living unless you're 2 to 4 years ahead of the curve.

The first article comes from WSJ, but I learned about it through H+. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic have studies to suggest that they found a drug that targets and eliminates some of of the aspects of aging.

The science here is interesting. Death from aging is a disease just like any other disease. It's also one that's programmed into the genetic cold; exactly why that is should be anyone's guess. I would think that death evolved as a means of additional population control, since immortal populations tend not to practice the immoral procreation clause unless they're, well, y'know, sapient enough to control their birthrate. Like humans are. Perhaps it's beneficial to think of old age as a genetic disorder that every single one of us suffers from, like autism or any variety of autoimmune disorders. The body begins to break down because of numerous factors; all of which can be treated. One of those factors, according to the article, is senescence:

Most young, healthy cells divide continuously in order to keep body tissues and organs functioning properly, but eventually stop splitting—a state called senescence—and are replaced by others. Senescence occurs throughout life, but people's ability to clear such cells from their bodies decreases with age, leading to a buildup.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., found for the first time that by using a drug to target and kill senescent cells, they could essentially freeze some aspects of the aging process.
This is amazing, because the ability to target certain cells also carries implication for cancer treatments. Anyone will tell you that cancer and old age are linked - one doesn't necessarily have to be old to have cancer, but your likelihood of getting cancer increase by age. The factors for this aren't necessarily well understood and may well vary from individual from individual, but there is certainly a genetic component that can be targeted.

Why isn't this in the news? Why aren't we celebrating this - we're taking our first steps towards removing the threat of old age. Rather than you dying because your body gave out on you, you're going to be dying on your own terms - and not a minute before you're ready to. The ability to target senescence in cells and treat it like we would any other genetic disorder is a huge leap in medical technology.
The importance of cell senescence to the aging process has long been suspected. But the latest finding demonstrates definitively that these cells play a role in age-related conditions, according to Felipe Sierra, director of the division of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging, who wasn't involved in the study.

When cells become senescent, they produce harmful compounds such as those that cause inflammation. Chronic tissue inflammation with aging is thought to underlie dementia, atherosclerosis and diabetes, among other ills, according to James Kirkland, head of Mayo's Center on Aging, who was also an author of the study.

Senescent cells make up only a small portion of cells—some 5% or less—in the tissue of elderly people, but their effects can be widespread, the researchers said.

Because senescence is believed to have developed as a defense against cancer, in which cells divide uncontrollably, simply halting the process could be dangerous.

But scientists have wondered for decades if the damage inflicted by senescent cells could be stopped if they were removed from the body altogether, or if the harmful substances they produced were neutralized.

In the study reported on Wednesday, the team used mice designed to age faster than normal and treated them with a drug that identifies cells that have stopped dividing. The drug then initiates the natural process that leads to cell death by puncturing the membranes of those cells alone.

The researchers treated some mice over the course of their lifetimes and found a "quite dramatic delay" in the development of cataracts and age-related changes to muscle and fat, Dr. van Deursen said.
This is important, because we share a lot of genetic disorders with mice, and we share a lot of genetic similarities with a red-eyed little irritant otherwise known as a fruit-fly, the research on which could allow us to gain a deeper understanding in how our own genetics work. Testing in mice is the first step; soon we'll have beta and test drugs available that we'll use to see if they work on actual human subjects.

Naturally, if we're going to postpone aging and the effects of aging, we're going to need to start treating women like humans who can make their own viable decisions regarding their bodies. Otherwise, you will be looking at a very large population bomb. This is on it's way to happening in most civilized parts of the world, but sadly, the United States is not among them. In fact, 2011 was one of the worst years on record for the pro-life, pro-choice movement and one of the most successful for the pro-forced birth/anti-life and anti-choice movement. I believe it's likely that that will be their last good year - it's always darkest right before dawn, so just keep our heads above water and keep fighting.

Another interesting social question is whether or not this is something that will only be available to the super wealthy. While it's likely in countries where the super wealthy already own 90% of everything this will be the case - but in countries with socialized medicine, and more even wealth distribution, it's not likely going to pan out exactly like that. The H+ article argues that nobody says we shouldn't cure cancer simply because the cure will belong to the super rich - and if you look at death by old age as a genetic disorder, then I'm not sure what the difference is between that and cancer, or that and autism, or that and other genetic disorders.

Hyperlongevity looks like it's going to be one of the first of the advanced transhuman technologies to get here. I suspect there will be a cure for HIV as early as 2014, with one for some types of cancer coming shortly before or after that. Then, you'll hear about longevity treatments - likely before 2020 - and by 2040, there will be functional immunity to all genetic disorders, all biological agents including viruses, bacteria, prions and toxins, and likely longevity treatments that keep you young and fit well into your 100s. And this is before we start looking at the potential for functional immortality in the form of mind-uploading (if it's even possible).

Of course, this is all pre-Singularity technology. This is technology leading up to the singularity - if there is indeed going to be one. I rather believe that there will be a singularity; but then, I defined singularity in a different sense than most singularity chasers do (for instance, I used the printing press as an example of what I would qualify as a singularity). I took a look at some potential post-Singularity technologies in the form of attotech and zeptotech, although I never really dealt with whether or not they were possible (they're interesting to hypothesize about for sure). We do know, however, that nanotechnology is possible. And from the perspective of the laws of physics, there's nothing saying that femtotechnology is impossible.

Now, femtotech operates two levels smaller than nanotech does - but it's, in theory, possible. Some of the potential uses for femtotech would be something like manipulating the oxidation states of atoms, creating self-replicating molecules and molecules of things other than atoms, as well as the creation of metastable atoms like the Rydberg atom, and use them to create Rydberg molecules, which can then be used to create Rydberg matter, a huge leap in materials science and quantum computing.

This is just a handful of uses for femtotech. Another use for femtotech would be creating computers.

Oh sure, creating computers doesn't sound all that special. And indeed, it's not - at least, not until you realize these computers can be created with your DNA:

DNA computing may sound like science fiction – but it’s actually real science and engineering, right now in 2011.  Using DNA for computing is not yet of any practical value – the computing systems built using DNA so far are very slow and carry out very simple operations.  But they demonstrate the viability of the principle of engineering and operating computing systems via utilizing molecular-biology components, connected in novel ways.

DNA is, of course, a natural substance that plays a key role in biological organisms, encoding the information needed for their growth and ongoing maintenance.  DNA nanotech involves using DNA and other nucleic acids to engineer novel nanostructures – including, in some cases, nanocomputers.  DNA computing can be done using DNA nanotech, but it can also be done via leveraging the properties of DNA in simpler ways, without building new nanostructures out of DNA. If you’re not familiar with the basics of DNA and genetics, you may want to look at a tutorial like this one (or, for a more thorough treatment, this one), before reading any further.

One of the  many approaches to DNA computing is based on the engineering of tile-like structures using DNA.   “Tiles” in this context are DNA-based constructs where there is very tight binding within the tile, and looser binding between tiles.


DNA lives at the nano scale, not the femto scale.  However, as Jinfeng Liao and Edward Shuryak pointed out in a 2010 paper, there is reason to suspect the existence of polymer-like structures at the femto scale – for example, chains of quarks and gluons, occurring in quark-gluon plasmas when the underlying parameters have the right values.  They look at chains of the form quark-gluon-…-gluon-quark, and a few other similar forms — but it seems that similar mathematics could be used to explore a variety of more complex, similar structures.  Of course these are very different in their physical underpinnings than DNA sequences like AGCTTTAA…CTG — but computing theory has taught us repeatedly that the encoding of information in symbols is independent of the specific infrastructure used to create the symbols.

And so, speculatively at least, this research on polymer-like structures in quark-gluon plasmas opens the door for the possibility of something broadly similar to DNA computing at the femto scale.   So far, our evidence for the existence of these polymer-like femtochains is purely indirect and mathematical – based on mathematical extrapolation from the theory of quark-gluon plasmas, which has been validated using other experiments not involving such chains.  We don’t have direct observation of these chains — even the simple ones explicitly explored by Liao and Shuryak, let alone more complex ones.   And making direct observations of such chains is a dicey matter due to the principle of quark confinement.  Isolated quarks can’t be observed, according to current physics theories, though various scenarios involving observing “partially isolated” quarks are being considered in the literature.  So, the use of these femtochains for femtoengineering and femtocomputing is certainly speculative.  But, it’s interesting!
What might an analogue of DNA computing at the femto scale look like?   The first step would be to construct a femtoscale analogue of the DX tile – some sort of chain of elementary particles with complementary “sticky” ends.  The precise polymer-like femtochains that Liao and Shuryak describe would not necessary display this property, but it seems feasible that similar mathematics could lead to something of this nature – either in quark-gluon plasmas or in some other kind of degenerate matter.   Once we have femto DX tiles, then, we could potentially engineer these tiles to work like Wang tiles, [En: I added this link; it appears in the part of the paper I clipped out] as in the DNA computing case.  This would give us the capability for executing arbitrary computable functions, in a cellular automaton like manner.
For those not well versed in particle physics, let me try to break this down.

A quark (pronounced like "lark" - qwark") is a small particle that comes in a couple of different flavors. Just like exchange systems in RPG games, where 10 copper is one silver, 3 quarks is one baryon; like a proton or neutron. Quarks are the the things that make up the different protons and neutrons, and dictate the charge. A gluon is a particle that a quark "throws" to another quark in order to stay together; gluons are particles representative of the strong nuclear force, which is the force that holds atoms together. Quark-gluon plasma, then, is going to be a highly energetic state of matter that exist of nothing but quarks and the gluons that are keeping them together; the quarks are unable to form any higher particles due to the energy level (for reflection - quark-gluon plasma is proposed to exist in the center of neutron stars. These are the kinds of forces that we're talking about here.)

The paper cited postulates the existence of these quark-gluon plasmas at a base level for the DNA structure, which the author suggests could be manipulated and encoded with information that could then be processed by outside sources (likely the DNA itself, when turned into a nanocomputer). Of course, we're functioning at a level where there's a lot of problems, including the one addressed above: not being able to isolate quarks from gluons, which would make it rather hard to write information on just the quarks, but if a "semi-isolated" quark is enough, and I'll admit I have no idea what that entails, then it might in theory work.

Having femto DX tiles would allow us to create automaton molecules, just like cells function, we could have molecules doing the same. A molecule could change it's make up, totally changing the material within it. It could change the chemical state, altering fundamental properties of the molecules. We could, in theory, turn our entire body into quantum hypercomputers.

So there you have it - in the lead up to a Singularity, we have life-extension technology that can make our bodies (barring accidents) live forever. After the singularity, we'll be able to take these eternal bodies and turn them into powerful computers on their own.

Even if femtocomputing isn't a possibility - and I don't see why not - I see no reason why we can't think of the future as an exciting place. I want to be there, that's for sure.

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