The Manipulation of Matter – Visions of the Future (3)

In The Quantum Revolution, the final episode of BBC4’s Visions of the Future series, Michio Kaku explores the influence that our understanding of fundamental aspects of physics may have on our lives in the future. After outlining the origins and impact of quantum theory within physics during the 1960s (and on his own career path), Kaku describes how its implications have given us a new, and unprecedented power to manipulate matter at the atomic level.

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Michio Kaku presents Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution (BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

The episode is effectively split into two halves. The first deals predominately with the the implications of quantum theory for energy production – specifically the possibility of truly sustainable, renewable energy sources – in the future; the second with the potential development of nanotechnology. The latter is the more bio-relevant and will be the focus of this commentary (approximately 00: 32:00 to 00:50:00).

Kaku describes nanotechnology as giving us the ability to “redesign the world by building with atoms” (00:32:05) and to control “the fundamentals of nature” (00:32:13). In introducing the viewer to nanotechnology, Kaku makes reference to what could be called ‘natural nanobots’ and states that “the goal of nanotechnology is to create living machines on the scale of cells like proteins, DNA or bacteria, and design them to perform equally complex tasks” (00:33:00). Specifically, he identifies three areas in which developments in nanotechnology may have a significant impact: bioremediation, biomedicine and the military.

Bioremediation

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Hijacking nature to create solar energy in Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution (BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

This section focuses on how, in the future, we may be able to “hijack living systems at the molecular level” (00:33:30) and engineer them to do what we want. While not strictly bioremediation, Kaku explores how the function of one of the proteins involved in photosynthesis in plants could be hijacked in order to produce a ‘paint’ that can be used to generate solar power. Visions of the Future presents this application of nanotechnology as relatively unproblematic in ethical terms, indeed it may be seen as ethically advantageous since the paint produced by this process is far more transportable – say to India, China or Africa – than conventional silicon solar panels. Further, since this ‘hijacking’ seems little different from the use of genetic modification to create bacteria capable of producing human insulin (see Genetic engineering on the BBC Bitsize website, or Sticky ends on the Science Aid: Genetic Engineering site), it may present fewer bioethical dilemmas than, for example, Craig Venter’s use of ‘artificial life’ for a similar purpose (see the BioethicsBytes post “A DNA-Driven World” – Craig Venter’s vision for synthetic biology).

Biomedicine

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Nanobots travel through the bloodstream to deliver targeted treatment in Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution (BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

In episode one of Visions of the Future (see BioethicsBytes post “Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)) Kaku introduced the use of small, but intelligent, machines in medicine as a form of ‘ubiquitous computing’. However, where these micro-chip technologies might monitor health and well-being from outside the body, here Kaku looks at nano-scale robots that could be injected into the bloodstream in order to do a similar job from the inside. In addition such ‘nanorobots’ would also be able to perform additional medical functions, for example, targeted drug-delivery or the detection and removal of cancerous or even pre-cancerous tissues.

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Hunter-killers: the nanobots of the future? (Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution. BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

Commentator Joel Garreau (author of Radical Evolution) refers to these as the first and second generation of biomedical nanobots: the “watchdogs” (00:39:33) and the “hunter-killers” (00:39:50). The programme suggests that “in the future swarms of invisible nanorobots might be permanently patrolling our blood system” (00:39:27) protecting us against, or mitigating the effects of, disease like Alzheimer’s, cancer and obesity.As with bioremediation, the use of nanotechnology in medicine does not appear to be particularly problematic, however Kaku’s comment (when manipulating ‘hijacked’ bacteria that will be used to propel the nanorobots around the body) captures a certain hubris that pervades this programme. He says: “I almost feel omnipotent, like a god controlling thousands and thousands of bacteria” (00: 36:41). This resonates strongly with claims that in a number of areas of biomedical research scientists are ‘playing God’ (see for example the discussion of this in Cho et al., Science, 10 December 1999: Vo. 286. No. 5447, pp. 2082-2090) and that our apparent control over nature is an illusion.

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Nanobot explodes in the bloodstream of an enemy (Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution. BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

The Military

The overarching aim of the military use of nanotechnology is explicitly stated as the ability to “seek and destroy specific targets” (00:40:33). Initially the use of nanbot swarms (see screenshot, below) programmed to target specific installations or equipment is proposed, however the use of nanorobots comparable to those used in biomedical settings might also be viable – though these nanorobots would be designed to attack tissue rather than repair it (see screenshot, left).Though this post has only dealt with a relative short section of this final episode of Visions of the Future, its exploration of the future of nanotechnology highlights a number of themes common to the consideration of biotechnology in society. Firstly, much of the discussion involves the issue of control of technology (as in the consideration of the ‘grey goo’ scenario between 00:41:30 to 00:42:40), and secondly, the idea that technologies are ‘neutral tools’ that may be used ethically or unethically (as in the use of nanorobots in biomedicine v. the military).

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Nanobots swarm towards their target in Visions of the Future: The Quantum Revolution (BBC4, Nov 19 2007, 21:00)

Finally, the correspondence between the portrait of nanotechnology painted by Kaku in Visions of the Future and that offered by Michael Crichton in his novel Prey (see the BioethicsBytes post Artifical Evolution – Prey (Crichton, 2002)) is striking. Crichton’s novel involves both the injection of nanobots into the human bloodstream, and the idea of a swarm of self-replicating nanobots streaming across the desert. However, where Kaku presents these developments optimistically, Crichton’s tale can be read as a warning. In this way Visions of the Future and Prey represent the same object viewed from different angles. Together, they would form an interesting basis for comparing the different views, though also identifying common areas of ethical concern.

Overall the series Visions of the Future provides an engaging and visually stimulating exposition of where current technological trends may take us. It provides a number of concise descriptions of how future biological and other technologies may work, and also suggests how our societies may change as a consequence of these developments. Though some of the programmes do not debate ethical issues explicitly, they are a useful resource for considering the connection between what type of society we want to live in and how the technologies we choose may be more or less appropriate to our own visions of the future.

The Quantum Revolution was first broadcast on BBC4 on 19th November 2007 at 9pm. Members of the BUFVC may obtain copies for educational use (TRILT identifier 0075A13C).

2 Responses to The Manipulation of Matter – Visions of the Future (3)

  1. A really interesting and great article. Thank you very much.

  2. fotografia ślubna…

    […]The Manipulation of Matter – Visions of the Future (3) « BioethicsBytes[…]…

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