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Comprehensive Nanorobotic Control of Human Morbidity and Aging

Robert Freitas' book chapter for The Future of Aging compilation is now online. It looks very interesting. Freitas always produces fantastic work, that's one of the reasons Kurzweil constantly cites him. Here's the abstract:

Nanotechnology involves the engineering of molecularly precise structures and molecular machines, and nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology to medicine, including the development of medical nanorobotics. Theoretical designs for diamondoid nanomachinery such as bearings, gears, motors, pumps, sensors, manipulators and even molecular computers already exist. Technologies required for the molecularly precise fabrication of diamondoid mechanical components and medical nanorobots, along with feasible strategies for the mass production of these devices, are the focus of active current research. This chapter describes a comprehensive solution to human morbidity and aging which will be attained when mankind has established control over all critical molecular events in the human body through the use of medical nanorobotics. Medical nanorobots can provide targeted treatments to individual organs, tissues, cells and even intracellular components, and can intervene in biological processes at the molecular level under direct supervision of the physician. Programmable micron-scale robotic devices will make possible comprehensive cures for human disease, the reversal of physical trauma, and individual cell repair. This leads to the complete control of human aging via nanomedically engineered negligible senescence (NENS) coupled with nanorobot-mediated rejuvenation that should extend the human healthspan at least tenfold beyond its current maximum length. The nanomedical solution is the final step in the roadmap to the control of human aging.

Continue. I talked to Freitas about this work, and he said, "It's a major piece of work -- a current update and the most comprehensive summary so far of the many potential applications of advanced diamondoid medical nanorobotics to conventional and anti-aging medicine."

Comments (79) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Sounds like more of the usual nanotech vaporware to me. We’ve given Eric Drexler’s “nanotechnology” 30 years to incubate, and yet he, Merkle, Freitas and their fellow Kool-Aid drinkers have nothing tangible to show for their efforts other than computer animations and unreadable books.

    If the nanotech cultists really believe their own propaganda, why don’t they raise the money for inducement prizes and award them to people who can build and demonstrate, say, Drexler’s “telescoping nanomanipulator” thingy shown on p. 16 of Freitas’s paper, or another device offering the same functionality. I’d counter-wager that the prize money, assuming an honest competition, will remain unclaimed indefinitely because Drexler got the physics and chemistry wrong.

  2. What about the physics and chemistry do you think is wrong?

  3. Robert Freitas has worked really hard and at some sufficiently advanced level of technology, devices like these would be part of the medical toolkit. But I think there’s a far greater chance for an immediate revolution in medicine if we focus on artificial cell-like systems (I don’t even know what to call them) which have the properties of cells and are made of the same biochemicals, rather than on rigid nanomechanical systems that can’t be metabolized and which require a whole new nanoindustrial infrastructure to be produced.

    Consider the contrast between a white blood cell and Freitas’s “microbivore”. From an ordinary engineering perspective, a white blood cell is a pretty odd sort of device: a soft little blob wrapped in a lipid membrane, which bumps up against its target and then *grows* amorphous pseudopods with which to engulf, through a molecular-scale process of self-organization. On the other hand, the microbivore is a more familiar type of entity: a rigid body with a hull, grappling arms, and exhaust ports.

    Nonetheless, the white blood cell is much more at home in vivo. It grows there, and when it dies its components are easily resorbed. The microbivore is an expeditionary force from an alien world of diamondlike substances. If it malfunctions and becomes inert, it could easily become a health hazard itself.

    Cells are very well adapted for nanoscale functionality in an environment consisting of other cells. Their dynamical and structural peculiarities – peculiar from the perspective of people used to macro-scale rigid bodies – such as their apparent formlessness, are actually positive design *features*. (Of course, this is what Richard Jones is on about with his “soft machines”.)

    I don’t think I’m successfully conveying just how important this perspective is. So here’s another way to frame it: It is a lot easier to design a modified bacterium than it is to design and build a functional medical nanobot. We should therefore revisit all these medical nanobotic scenarios, and imagine all the activities of the nanobots instead being carried out by bacteria which have been designed to have the necessary chemotactic and other properties, but which – unlike the rigid nanobots – are also designed to die in situ and be harmlessly lysed and absorbed by the body.

    Every tissue of the human body already carries a big microbial ecology – symbiotes, parasites, pathogens. Those organisms, along with the body’s own cells, would be the true peers of a nanobotic expeditionary force, the agents with which it would need to interact. It just makes so much more sense to conceive of using designer micro-organisms as the agents of nanoscale medical interventions. We’re not having to introduce an alien chemistry into the body, with all the complex novelties implies – tailored bacteria would be based on the same fundamental biochemistry as their host.

    I picked up this vision – which takes the nanomedical vision of nanobot fleets living throughout one’s tissues and re-naturalizes it in an unusual way – from the first chapter of Bruce Sterling’s “Tomorrow Now”, which speculates about daily life in the biotech society of the 2090s. Unlike Mark Plus, commenting above, I’m not a skeptic about the eventual viability of diamondoid nanomechanisms, but it will be real and tangible progress when we have a similarly developed discourse about biomedically tailored microorganisms performing the same functions attributed to the nanobots in articles like this. Creating a designer microbe doesn’t require breakthroughs in mechanosynthesis; transgenic microbes are used in thousands of labs every day. But this step will require a much deeper understanding of cellular biophysics, the “sociology” of cellular interactions in tissues, and the development of a general intuition for how living matter actually works. And of course we would need that knowledge for a medical nanobot to work anyway – otherwise it’s just a hard little alien device, blundering about in a landscape of soft machines, chopping them up or itself being smothered by a mob of leukocytes, like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.

    Just to say it again: I’m not denying that rigid nanobotic devices have no place in vivo. But what we have to aim for is a better understanding and a better intuition regarding the physics and dynamics of the soft machines that make up our flesh right now, and as we develop that, we will see many ways to achieve these interventions by far subtler means. “Small interfering RNA” is an early example.

    • These are excellent ideas. It does make sense to pursue “designer micro-organisms” as we wait for progress in mechanosynthesis. Just think how much more mature the “research infrastructure” already exists for building these designer micro-organisms than for making Drexler’s MNT a reality. Because of this, I’d think the designer micro-organism research would have access to a much larger slice of research money pie. I’d also argue that maybe more practical path toward mature MNT leads through hacking existing bio-nanomachinery as a way to bootstrap the MNT industry.

  4. @Michael:

    I’ll make the analogy I’ve made elsewhere: Suppose in an alternate universe, someone circa 1960 published a book-length description of a theoretical technology called a “laser,” but he couldn’t build one, nor could anyone else. Now, flash forward 50 years later, and we still don’t have lasers, but instead we see a whole industry of “laserologists” who continue to publish theoretical studies of lasers, hold conferences about the social, political, economic, etc. impacts of lasers when they eventually arrive, warn the U.S. not to fall behind other nations’ laser programs, and even publish book-length treatises about potential medical applications of lasers – all of this without one single working laser, in this alternate universe.

    Any rational person who witnessed this circus would conclude that lasers will remain a fantasy, but some people with technical degrees who can’t do, or don’t want to do, real engineering keep promoting the laser idea as a source of rent-seeking and phony status.

    Of course, in the real world lasers went from a laboratory demonstration in 1960 to real technologies just a decade later, like the ones used to conduct physics experiments by bouncing coherent laser light off of the reflectors left by various Apollo missions on the surface of the moon.

    Now, why hasn’t anything analogous happened with Drexler’s “nanotechnology”? The trend suggests that the state of “nanotechnology” in the year 2030 will resemble its state now, even if people like Freitas and his successors publish “Nanomedicine, Volume XXV” by then. As the physics and quant blogger Scott Locklin says, “People need to grow up and attempt to achieve real things, rather than imagining how cool it would be if we had nanotech factories which would give us genie-like superpowers.”

    BTW, it doesn’t really help the Kool-Aid drinkers’ case to keep citing Feynmann’s speech in 1959. Intellectually productive people generate plenty of errors along with their good ideas. (You have to generate lots of ideas to have good ideas, because most ideas suck.) Feynmann himself apparently considered his “plenty of room at the bottom” talk a throwaway, considering that he didn’t bother to develop its ideas further, and everyone had forgotten about it by the 1980’s until Drexler rescued it from obscurity.

    • I dont know about nano factories however on the subject of nanomedicine Where else can “modern” medicine go? Our current Slash Burn and Poison(surgery radiation therapy and chemo)is at a dead end without nano. The use of dumb matter drugs can only get better by the addition of nano or smart matter pills. Maybe at first they wont be as elegant as nanobots as envisioned by Freitas and Drexler but this is the only logical direction to go(there are no magic plants in the amazon rainforest) Cells are made up of ATOMS. Disease and dysfuntion are misaligned atoms I see no other way to go?

  5. Babbage conceived of computers in 1822 but the technology didn’t take off until the 1980s. The Antikythera mechanism was manufactured about 100 BC, but similar devices were not constructed on a large scale until the 17th century. There are many other examples. Sometimes requisite technologies in the “tech tree” just don’t exist yet. MNT will be enabled by improvements in other nanotech tools. Be patient.

    MNT was explicitly excluded from funding in the NNI. Brian Wang said:

    Again there are people complaining that the vision of Eric Drexler was not realized after 25 years since he wrote Engines of Creation and other research papers on molecular nanotechnology.

    However, almost no money was spent funding the research and development of molecular nanotechnology. Significant amounts of money were devoted to mostly relabeled chemistry starting in November, 2003.

    Freitas discusses extensive experimental work that has verified parts of his and Drexler’s nanomedicine/nanotechnology vision. For instance, he remarks that experimental evidence has shown that buckytubes could be used as pistons, which could one day be applied to making microrobots which are acoustically powered.

    What “circus”? A few researchers?

    Locklin’s critiques are very superficial and not based on science, as I argued. Also, it’s revealing that I asked you to back up your statement about the physics and chemistry and you can’t.

    Here’s a quote from Freitas’ paper:

    Positional assembly is the norm in conventional macroscale manufacturing (e.g., cars, appliances, houses) but is only recently (Kenny 2007; Nanofactory Collaboration 2007a) starting to be seriously investigated experimentally for nanoscale manufacturing. Of course, we already know that positional fabrication will work in the nanoscale realm. This is demonstrated in the biological world by ribosomes, which positionally assemble proteins in living cells by following a sequence of digitally encoded instructions (even though ribosomes themselves are self-assembled). Lacking this positional fabrication of proteins controlled by DNA-based software, large, complex, digitally-specified organisms would probably not be possible and biology as we know it would not exist.


    Mark Plus; you need to revise your thinking.

  7. I think the MarkPlus’s criticism deserves attention. We need to keep a critical mind, as Carl Sagan would recommend.

    I really would be surprised if these devices (positional) worked to reverse aging. To reverse aging, especially the brain aging, one must act in the intracellular level, promote the repair and replacement of the DNA and, ultimately, change the genome (the nuclear and mitochondrial) at certain points.
    Anyone who has some knowledge of molecular biology knows how things in this intracellular universe are different. They are highly complex systems based on millions of random collisions and in the fitting provided by the form of proteins and enzymes in an extraordinarily rich and complex scenario (we still barely know how is the folding of proteins).
    I do not see how things like gears and levers could work there, since everything is dynamic and based on bumps and holes and molecular forces. Perhaps they are plausible in some role, to some extent, but at this intracellular and cellular level, I think it’s unlikely.
    As Mitchell Porter said, I also think that the real machines that we can build and that can play a useful role are microorganisms (and enzymes). A very rough example: there are fruit flies (with normal genome) and Michael Rose Methuselah flies. With help of computer simulation and artificial intelligence (genetic algorithms) we could develop viruses capable of transferring genetic material and transform normal flies life span in flies.

  8. Correcting the final:

    … we could develop viruses (in simulation) capable of transferring genetic material and transform normal flies’ genome into Methuselah flies’ genome. And, after, try to do the same with mammals.

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