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

January 9, 2008

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. Read the rest of this entry »


Artifical Evolution – Prey (Crichton, 2002)

November 19, 2007

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) Published in 2002, Michael Crichton’s novel Prey explores some of his concerns around the convergence of “genetics, nanotechnology, and distributed intelligence” (p.525), within the contemporary market for new healthcare technologies. The story revolves around the creation of a “swarm” of nanobots designed to work together as an artificial imaging system for use inside the human body. These molecular scale “cameras” are manufactured from organic biomolecules, which are assembled automatically. When injected into the body the cameras “distributed agent” programming enables them to work together and coalesce to form a minature eye, such that creator company Xymos can ‘see’ any organ within the human body. However, one camera swarm escapes the company’s fabrication plant and is allowed to roam free in the Nevada desert. Within days the swarm begins to evolve in ways its creators never imagined. Drawing on its programming and sources of biomolecules present in the environment the swarm multiplies, develops predatory capabilities, and eventually turns on its creators.

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Crichton (2002). Prey.
HarperCollins, London.

As in his more recent novel, Next, Crichton’s explicit intention is to highlight some of the more troubling aspects of contemporary biotechnological developments (this is expressed in a short introduction to Prey). While much of the action is quite fantastic, the technology is – as Crichton’s bibliography demonstrates – not unrealistic. At present, bioethical concerns associated with developments in nanobiotechnology, including artificial life forms capable of autonomy and evolution, rarely make the headlines. However, as these technologies become more widely discussed (see for example Science, 16 November 2007. Vol. 318, no. 5853 and Phoenix, 2003), this seems likely to change.

A number of bioethically-relevant themes arise in Prey. They include:

  • Issues around machine “mimicry” and enhancement (for example, see pages 85-88 concerning the appearance of Julia, a Xymos employee)
  • Non-rule based conceptions of intelligence, specifically distributed intelligence and self-organising behaviour in animals and machines (see pages 96-97 and 177-181)
  • The commercial environment within which new biotechnologies are developed, specifically in relation to the involvement of venture capital and the military (as on pages 174-176, for example)
  • Issues around our ability to control the technologies we create (the theme of “technology-out-of-control” in bioethical thought)

Overall, Crichton’s novel raises interesting questions about both, the direction of contemporary research in nanobiotechnology, and the environment within which it is conducted. However, as a basis for discussing the bioethical questions posed by this technology, the lack of short sections dealing with key themes (as in Next) and the narrative’s later focus on the ‘battle’ with the nanobot swarms, unfortunately makes it unwieldy as a teaching tool.

Prey was written by Michael Crichton, and published in the UK in 2002 by HarperCollins, London. ISBN: 9780007229734.