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WFS Update: Robert Freitas on How Nuclear-Powered Nanobots Will Allow Us to Forgo Eating a Square Meal for a Century

Wow, this surprised me. This is the sort of thing that I would write off as nonsense on first glance if it weren't from Robert Freitas, who is legendary for the rigor of his calculations. Here's the bit, from a World Future Society update:

The Issue: Hunger

The number of people on the brink of starvation will likely reach 1.02 billion -- or one-sixth of the global population-- in 2009, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the United States, 36.2 million adults and children struggled with hunger at some point during 2007.

The Future: The earth's population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion people in the next four decades, most of these people will be born in the countries that are least able to grow food. Research indicates that these trends could be offset by improved global education among the world's developing populations. Population declines sharply in countries where almost all women can read and where GDP is high. As many as 2/3 of the earth's inhabitants will live in water-stressed area by 2030 and decreasing water supplies will have a direct effect on hunger. Nearly 200 million Africans are facing serious water shortages. That number will climb to 230 million by 2025, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Finding fresh water in Africa is often a huge task, requiring people (mostly women and children) to trek miles to public wells. While the average human requires only about 4 liters of drinking water a day, as much as 5,000 liters of water is needed to produce a person's daily food requirements.

Futurist Fixes

1. The Food Pill. In the future, we may see a type of pill for replacing food, but experts say it likely would not be a simple compound of chemicals. A pill-sized food replacement system would have to be extremely complex because of the sheer difficulty of the task it was being asked to perform, more complex than any simple chemical reaction could be. The most viable solution, according to many futurists, would be a nanorobot food replacement system.

Dr. Robert Freitas, author of the Nanomedicine series and senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing spoke with FUTURIST magazine senior editor Patrick Tucker about it.

In his books and various writings, Freitas has described several potential food replacement technologies that are somewhat pill-like. The key difference, however, is that instead of containing drug compounds, the capsules would contain thousands of microscopic robots called nanorobots. These would be in the range of a billionth of a meter in size so they could easily fit into a large capsule, though a capsule would not necessarily be the best way to administer them to the body. Also, while these microscopic entities would be called "robots," they would not necessarily be composed of metal or possess circuitry. They would be robotic in that they would be programmed to carry out complex and specific functions in three-dimensional space.

One food replacement Dr. Freitas has described is nuclear powered nanorobots. Here's how these would work: the only reason people eat is to replace the energy they expend walking around, breathing, living life, etc. Like all creatures, we take energy stored in plant or animal matter. Freitas points out that the isotope gadolinium-148 could provide much of the fuel the body needs. But a person can't just eat a radioactive chemical and hope to be healthy, instead he or she would ingest the gadolinium in the form of nanorobots. The gadolinium-powered robots would make sure that the person's body was absorbing the energy safely and consistently. Freitas says the person might still have to take some vitamin or protein supplements but because gadolinium has a half life of 75 years, the person might be able to go for a century or longer without a square meal.

For people who really like eating but don't like what a food-indulgent lifestyle does to their body, Freitas has two other nanobot solutions.

“Nutribots” floating through the bloodstream would allow people to eat virtually anything, a big fatty steak for instance, and experience very limited weight or cholesterol gain. The nutribots would take the fat, excess iron, and anything else that the eater in question did not want absorbed into his or her body and hold onto it. The body would pass the nurtibots, and the excess fat, normally out of the body in the restroom.

A nanobot Dr. Freitas calls a "lipovore" would act like a microscopic cosmetic surgeon, sucking fat cells out of your body and giving off heat, which the body could convert to energy to eat a bit less.

Where can you read more about Robert Freitas' ideas? In the January-February 2010 issue of THE FUTURIST magazine, Freitas lays out his ideas for improving human health through nanotechnology.

Yes, there are many other technologies that could help out better with hunger right now. The most important are the three initiatives singled out by Giving What We Can as being high-leverage intervention points: schistosomiasis control, stopping tuberculosis, and the regular delivery of micronutrient packages. Another is the iodization of salt. How can these stop hunger? Well, the diseases and ill health caused by the absence of these measures is so great that alleviating them will increase the total amount of time that people have available to engage in farming, which in the short term will alleviate hunger more effectively than any direct measure. Delivering food in the form of aid fosters dependence.

Anyway, the summary of Freitas' food bot ideas above seems very limited. I'm sure that Freitas has worked out the design in greater detail. For instance, are the nanobots he is talking about is powered through a radioisotope rather than a nuclear fission plant, and the text doesn't make that clear enough, in my opinion. I wonder -- how is it that gadolinium can be broken down into all the nutrients the body needs? Wouldn't a large amount be required, because fueling the chemical reactions of the body requires bulk and mass no matter how you slice it? I am seeing a lot of technical questions and holes in the idea, as it is brusquely presented above. I will email Freitas and ask him to point us to the proper writings.

Comments (65) Trackbacks (2)
  1. > how is it that gadolinium can be broken down into all the nutrients the body needs?

    It wouldn’t be. The nanomachinery would use atoms from waste products that food breaks down into (e.g. urea, CO2) to create new food or ATP.

    > For instance, are the nanobots he is talking about is powered through a radioisotope rather than a nuclear fission plant

    Either way, where the hell would the waste heat go!? Is this a practical joke by Freitas!?

  2. > It wouldn’t be. The nanomachinery would use atoms from waste products that food breaks down into (e.g. urea, CO2) to create new food or ATP.

    to clarify: the gadolinium is only there to provide the energy; there are plenty of C/H/O/N atoms in the body.

  3. > Either way, where the hell would the waste heat go!?

    My guess is that the device would have a vent to the air, where hot steam could be vented. This might be as a bracelet that is connected to your wrist. You would need to replenish water somehow; perhaps a bracelet on the other hand could do this, and inject the water to your blood.

    Another option would be that Freitas thinks that he can make a radioisotope thermal generator with a really high efficiency, e.g. 50+%, so that the waste heat would not be so large as to overheat the body, especially if one could somehow turn down the body’s natural heating mechanisms and efficiently spread the heat through the body.

  4. How does Freitas think of this stuff!

    He may run into a problem in that radioactive decay may reconfigure molecular bonds and damage nanomachinery. Nanotech is a variation of life and mutations could be caused by ionizing radiation.

    Shannon’s theorem, and Drexler’s thesis, imply that with sufficient redundancy, damage could be kept arbitrarily low.

    A simpler solution may be to use sufficient shielding, but then in wouldn’t really be nano. It would be small bulk technology nanofactured by molecular machines to very small tolerances.

  5. A quick search of Gadolinium 148 shows that it emits a 3.18MeV alpha particle. Our chemical processes operate on the order of single digit electron volts. So if you can manage to capture all the energy of that decay, then you could make a lot of things that a body needs.
    The problem is that trying to capture 3.18MeV to make proteins is like me trying to capture the energy in a bolt of lighting to power the lights in my house. Possible, but very difficult if not impractical.

  6. The human body grows fingernails and hair and sheds dead skin cells. You can’t make up for that loss of mass with a gadolinium power-pack.

  7. Hmm. I overlooked the fact that we breathe, which can provide a steady supply of new atoms. But still, I would think we are talking about *major* alterations or additions to the standard biochemical cycles of the body, in order to make this work. It’s not going to be just a matter of Gd-powered nanobots making a steady supply of ATP, or whatever.

  8. > Either way, where the hell would the waste heat go!?

    Probably wouldn’t be much of an issue; anytime your metabolism rises, you’re producing more heat, but it’s negligible as far as cooling off fast enough goes. It’s not as if all your fat would be torched at once – anybody want to calculate how many joules a pound of fat would give off?

  9. I described a system with some similarities to this many years ago.

    A stomach which broke all incoming food into pure atomic elements, fed them directly to a chemical synthesizer which could reproduce all biological molecules used in cells, which would also filter out waste materials, and which could then convert those waste products into non-aromatic molecules for exhalation. This system could also draw CHON from the lungs and recycle most waste products if needed to enable extended periods of not eating.

    Since the stomach would break down any material, no ingested poisons could harm the person, and any material with CHON could be used for food. Filters in the lungs would not only allow CHON absorbtion and expulsion, but also allow the breathing of most non corrosive atmospheres or liquids.

    Sounds like it might not be so ridiculous as some people have tried to make it sound…

  10. @Sean:

    a typical radioisotope thermal generator is 5% efficient. To provide to 50-100W of energy the body needs, it would create 1000-2000W of waste heat. That’s a problem.

  11. I like how nano robotic energy sources are a more workable solution to hunger than a more equitable distribution of resources. More social planning etc. Just amusing that crazy science(I don’t mean that in a bad way.) is less crazy than politics.

  12. There are psychological correlates to consuming food that, if absent, could result in insanity. Reward nanobots would have to release endorphins or other appropriate reward. Of course, we could re-engineer the brain to obviate such a reward system. (Or maybe we already did, and we just think we are using our old brains, Neo.)

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