Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Molecular Machine Breakthrough: Solid State Synthetic Molecular Machine

In a major breakthrough for the field of molecular machines, Canadian chemists have created a self-assembling metallo-organic molecular wheel and axle. This is the first time scientists have proved that interlocked molecules can function inside solid materials. The lead author, a graduate student, said:

“Until now, this has only ever been done in solution,” explained Chemistry & Biochemistry PhD student Nick Vukotic, lead author on a front page article recently published in the June issue of the journal Nature Chemistry [abstract]. “We’re the first ones to put this into a solid state material.”

A molecular wheel and axle in a solid state material is proof of concept for simple solid state molecular machines. A wheel can in principle be developed into more sophisticated solid state molecular machines, such as power-transfer rods and other kinetic frameworks or elements in a solid state molecular computer. The predictability of the solid state environment relative to the environment of a solution is crucial for developing predictable molecular machine systems, and makes it easier to apply certain general principles of macroscale engineering to nanoscale systems.

With relatively little progress in molecular machinery over the past decade, this is a welcome advance for nanotech enthusiasts.

Several years ago, commenting on a post I made on arguments for the feasibility of solid state molecular nanotechnology, nanotech expert and former UK "nano-champion" Richard Jones said:

[...] the examples of biological nanotechnology and the success of work on DNA nanotechnology by Seeman and others tells us nothing about whether MNT is possible, since the operating principles of soft and wet nanotechnology are quite different to the proposals of MNT.

Now, the existence proof of a solid state molecular machine provides new evidence about the relative plausibility of complex molecular machine systems.

Via Foresight Institute.


The Mundanity of Physical Enhancement

Although physical enhancement is what most people associate with transhumanism, it's not particularly interesting. A man with tentacles and wings who can fly and breathe underwater is still just some dude. Humans are primitive beings, with conspicuously primitive minds -- we just recently evolved from un-intelligent apes that used the same stone tools for millions of years.

Everything truly exciting about the transhumanist project lies in the mental realm. Only through opening up and intervening in the brain can we really change ourselves and the way the world works. Anything else is just the surface.

What approaches can we take to cognitive enhancement?

First, take brain surgery. It is extremely unlikely that cognitive enhancement will be conducted through conventional brain surgery as is practiced today. These procedures are inherently risky and only conducted under necessary circumstances, when the challenges of surgery outweigh the huge cost, substantial risk, and long recovery time of the procedures.

More subtle than brain surgery is optogenetics, regarded by some as the scientific breakthrough of the last decade. Optogenetics allows researchers to control the precise activation of neurons through the introduction of light-sensitive genes to animal brain tissue.

Optogenetics is unlikely to be applied to humans before 2030-2040, for two reasons. The first is that it involves the introduction of foreign genes into human brain tissue, and gene therapy is in its infancy -- treatments derived from gene therapy are extremely rare and highly experimental. People have been killed by gene therapy gone awry. When gene therapy research moves in the direction of human enhancement, a massive backlash seems plausible. It may be banned entirely for enhancement purposes.

At the very least, the short-lived nature of gene therapy and problems with viral vectors ensure that gene therapy will stay experimental until entirely new vectors are developed. Chromallocytes are the ideal gene delivery vector, but those are quite far off. Is there something between current vectors and chromallocytes that produces safe, predictable gene therapy results? That is a great big question mark. What is needed is not one or two breakthroughs, but a long series of many breakthroughs. I challenge readers to find anyone in biotech who would bet that gene therapy will be made safe, predictable, and approved for use in humans within 10 years, 20 years, or 30. Developing new basic capabilities in biotech is a long, drawn out process.

The second reason optogenetics will not bear fruit for cognitive enhancement before 2030-2040 is that it requires slicing off part of the scalp and mounting fiber optics directly on the skull. This is all well and good for animals, which we torment with abandon, but it seems unlikely to be popular among the Homo sapiens crowd. Mature regenerative medicine would be necessary to heal tissue damage from this procedure.

According to Ray Kurzweil's scenario, "nanobots" will be developed during the late 2020s which will be injected into the human body by the trillions, where they can link up with neurons and augment the brain from the inside.

However, given the near complete lack of progress towards molecular nanotechnology since Eric Drexler wrote Engines of Creation in 1986, I find this hard to believe. Nanobots require nanofactories, nanofactories require assemblers, and assemblers would be highly complex aggregates of millions of molecules that themselves would need to be manufactured to atomic precision. Today, all objects manufactured to molecular precision have negligible complexity. The imaging tools that exist today -- and for the foreseeable future -- are far too imprecise to allow for troubleshooting molecular systems of non-negligible size and complexity that refuse to behave as intended. The more precise the imaging method, the more energy is delivered to the molecular structure, and the more likely it is to be blown into a million little pieces.

It is difficult to understate how far we are from developing autonomous nanobots with the ability to perform complex tasks in a living human body. There is no reason to expect a smooth path from today's autonomous MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) to the "nanobots" of futurist anticipation. Autonomous MEMS are early in their infancy. Assemblers are probably a necessary prerequisite to miniature robotics with the power to enhance human cognition. No one has designed anything close to an assembler, and if progress continues as it has for the last 25 years, it will be many decades before one is developed.

So, that is three technologies that I have argued will not be applied to cognitive enhancement in the foreseeable future -- brain surgery, optogenetics, and nanobots.


Foresight @ Google: 25th Anniversary & Reunion Weekend

Interested in emerging technologies?
Fascinated by the potential in transformative nanotech?
Come explore the future with...

25th Anniversary Conference Celebration and Reunion Weekend
Google HQ in Mountain View, CA
June 25-26 2011

A rockstar lineup includes keynotes:

• JIM VON EHR - Founder/President of Zyvex,
the world's first successful molecular nanotech company
• BARNEY PELL, PhD - Cofounder/CTO of Moon Express, competing for Google's Lunar X PRIZE

With speakers and panelists including:
• WILLIAM ANDREGG - Founder/CEO of Halcyon Molecular
• MIKE GARNER, PhD - Chair of ITRS Emerging Research Materials
• MIKE NELSON - CTO of NanoInk
• LUKE NOSEK - CoFounder of Paypal, Founders Fund Partner
• PAUL SAFFO, PhD - Wired, NYT-published strategist & forecaster
• SIR FRASER STODDART, PhD - Knighted for creation of molecular "switches" and a new field of nanochemistry
• THOMAS THEIS, PhD - IBM's Director of Physical Sciences

For the full speaker roster, as well as information on our exclusive 25th Anniversary Banquet, see our conference website:

Space is limited!

For $50 off, register now with the special discount code just for AF readers: ACCELERATING

I hope to see you all there!


Philip Moriarty Discusses Mechanosynthesis with Sander Olson

From Next Big Future:

University of Nottingham physicist Philip Moriarty is one of the few scientists who has been able to do extensive research into molecular mechanosynthesis. In 2004 Moriarty engaged in a debate with Chris Phoenix over the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. In 2008 Moriarty received a grant from the British Government to examine the viability of mechanosynthesis. In this Next Big Future interview with Sander Olson, Moriarty discusses the progress that has been made during the past decade, the challenges of working with diamond, and the prospects for building components out of silicon and diamond.

Question: You began the project for experimental work on molecular mechanosynthesis about five years ago. How is the project going?

Answer: The mechanosynthesis project has actually only been running for about 2.5 years now and the initial goal was to explore the possibility of atom-by-atom assembly on diamond surfaces , i.e. to test the viability of Drexler's original vision of making components out of diamond. But as Drexler himself recently pointed out diamond is a very difficult material to work with. As a result, in Nottingham we have a parallel effort focused on silicon, which is much, much easier to work with than diamond. For example, we only very recently achieved atomic resolution using non-contact atomic force microscopy on a hydrogen-passivated diamond surface. Moving beyond imaging to atomic manipulation of the diamond surface is going to be much more challenging than for silicon.



Cyborgs Could Be Ten Thousand Times Stronger Than Humans

I'm still slowly going through Rob Freitas' book chapter in the Future of Aging volume, there's an interesting part where he lists the immense benefits of nanomedical robots. Since I am especially interested in materials science I thought this part on materials was interesting:

Superior Materials. Typical biological materials have tensile failure strengths in the 106-107 N/m2 range, with the strongest biological materials such as wet compact bone having a failure strength of ~108 N/m2, all of which compare poorly to ~109 N/m2 for good steel, ~1010 N/m2 for sapphire, and ~1011 N/m2 for diamond and carbon fullerenes (Freitas 1999aa), again showing a 103-105 fold strength advantage for mechanical systems that use nonbiological, and especially diamondoid, materials. Nonbiological materials can be much stiffer, permitting the application of higher forces with greater precision of movement, and they also tend to remain more stable over a larger range of relevant conditions including temperature, pressure, salinity and pH. Proteins are heat sensitive in part because much of the functionality of their structure derives from the noncovalent bonds involved in folding, which are broken more easily at higher temperatures. In diamond, sapphire, and many other rigid materials, structural shape is covalently fixed, hence is far more temperature-stable. Most proteins also tend to become dysfunctional at cryogenic temperatures, unlike diamond-based mechanical structures (Freitas 1999ab), so diamondoid nanorobots could more easily be used to repair frozen cells and tissues.

I thought it was interesting that steel is about ten times stronger than wet compact bone, and that sapphire is ten times that, and diamond/fullerenes ten times that. Imagine replacing all your flesh and bone with fullerene materials that perform the same functions.

"Become ten thousand times stronger with nanotechnology!"

Reading this puts into perspective how biological efforts to improve the human body still leave you with what is essentially an unstable tower of delicate stringy proteins and water. The tower is so unstable that it requires realtime balancing to even stay upright, and a stiff breeze can knock it down.


What Would it Cost to Develop a Nanofactory?

Here is Freitas' latest estimate, from his "comprehensive nanorobotic control" article:

What will it cost to develop a nanofactory? Let's assume research funds are spent in a completely focused manner toward the goal of a primitive diamondoid nanofactory that could assemble rigid diamondoid structures involving carbon, hydrogen, and perhaps a few other elements. In this case, we estimate that an ideal research effort paced to make optimum use of available computational, experimental, and human resources would probably run at a $1$ M/yr level for the first 5 years of the program, ramp up to $20-50 M/yr for the next 6 years, then finish off at a ~$100 M/yr rate culminating in a simple working desktop nanofactory appliance in year 16 of a ~$900 M effort. Of course the bulk of this work, after the initial 5 year period, would be performed by people, companies, and university groups recruited from outside the Nanofactory Collaboration. The key early milestone is to demonstrate positionally-controlled carbon placement on a diamond surface by the end of the initial 5 year period. We believe that successful completion of this key experimental milestone would make it easier to recruit significant additional financial and human resources to undertake the more costly later phases of the nanofactory development work.

So, about a billion dollars and 16 years. Say they started in 2020, we'd expect a nanofactory around 2036, by this estimate.

Filed under: nanotechnology 5 Comments

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."


Zyvex Labs: “Atomic Precision Fabrication Using Patterned Si Atomic Layer Epitaxy”

Here's a description of what they're doing. Zyvex is the best-funded group working towards molecular nanotechnology. There is good coverage of Zyvex at Next Big Future, including an interview with CEO Jim Von Ehr from May. Here's an answer I thought had interesting details:

Question 6: Eric Drexler has advocated a DNA origami approach, but others favor a direct to diamondoid strategy. Which approach do you favor?

Answer 6: We actually have our own distinct approach which is neither DNA origami nor direct to diamondoid. The ease of programming a computer controlled milling machine, which could make all manner of macro-scale products out of metal or plastic simply by changing the program, makes our paradigm compelling if we can build something similar at the nanoscale. The DNA approach doesn't lend itself to that flexibility very well. The diamondoid approach may be a great end point, but we simply don't have that capability now. We lack the precision and well defined tips to do diamondoid. By contrast, our approach gets us to rudimentary molecular manufacturing fairly quickly.

A recent presentation by John Randall (VP of Zyvex Labs) at AVS 2010 is available here. Jim Von Ehr predicts rudimentary molecular manufacturing by 2020.


Eric Drexler: “Give the “D Word” a Rest”

In a recent blog post, father of nanotechnology Eric Drexler quotes a historian who wrote in to correct mistakes in a Nature article that claimed that the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) caused enthusiasm in nanotechnology, rather than the other way around. He also explains why he loathes the term "Drexlerian".

Filed under: nanotechnology 6 Comments

Brian Wang: “Molecular Nanotechnology Was Explicitly Excluded from Funding… You Get What You Pay For”

A recent post on Next Big Future responding to Scott Locklin's recent nanotech-smearing piece, Brian Wang explains why there has been almost no progress on molecular nanotechnology throughout the last 25 years -- it hasn't been funded:

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.

Locklin (link to his site removed, since he is a flamebaiting troll) gets facts wrong and the target of his outrage is totally misdirected. The billions for NNI were hijacked for the falsely labeled nanotech starting in 2003. It is idiotic to blame Drexler, Merkle, Freitas when they did not get the money.

Locklin and people like him ignored what has been happening for eight years and allowed the funding to be hijacked for what they do not believe is nanotechnology. Now they have stain proof pants buyers remorse and are not satisfied with carbon nanotubes and the other non-molecular nanotech research. The proper response is to write to congressmen and senators to direct NNI appropriations into an actual effort to develop molecular nanotechnology. If after actually getting funding and work for 10-25 years, then there could be some comparison of progress expected versus results delivered. For now the results match the effort that has been performed. There are very little results from almost no societal effort. Your team did not do any laps in the Daytona 500 because you did not buy a car for your team or pay for an entry fee. Whining about it now, makes me ask - Where the hell have you been for the last eight years ? When you buy your SUV from Ford Motors do you send your complaints to Porsche or DeLorean about the race car you did not buy ?

Read the rest here.

I love when Brian Wang gets worked up about something, because the knowledge base he brings to bear in any rebuttal is really huge. All science and futurist sites of similar quality and quantity of information to his are run by teams, not a single individual.


Nanowerk Links Selection 9/10/10

Nanowerk always has interesting news items closely related to the subject matter of this blog. Here's some recent ones.

Gene-silencing nanoparticles may put end to mosquito pest

iGEM team helps prevent rogue use of synthetic biology

Nanotechnology coatings produce 20 times more electricity from sewage

Team designs artificial cells that communicate and cooperate like biological cells

NanoRidge Materials Signs Contract for New Defense Armor

Wear-a-BAN - Unobtrusive wearable human to machine wireless interface

Toward a new generation of superplastics

Scientists discover a way to use a gallium arsenide nanodevice as a signal processor at terahertz speeds


Scott Locklin on Nanotechnology and Drexler

Some of you may have been following Scott Locklin's "reality check" on nanotechnology, which was linked by CrunchGear and Hacker News.

My opinion of the post is that is confuses Drexlerian nanotech with nanotechnology "in general", and makes many major errors, including denying the existence of micromachines and nano-sized elements that drive larger systems.

The article is also wrong because it claims that, in his book, Eric Drexler is just porting macroscale designs to the nano-world, but the entire work (Nanosystems) takes great pains to analyze the differences between the nanoscale and macroscale and introduce engineering innovations that could be a good starting point for true molecular manufacturing. Another error the article makes is suggesting that Drexler dismisses using biology as tools for nanomachines, which is ironic considering that Drexler advocates "molecular and biomolecular design and self-assembly" approaches to molecular nanotechnology, and often discusses the protein folding path on his blog.

Drexler posted a response to Locklin in the comments section:

Hi Scott,

In my view, molecular and biomolecular design and self-assembly are the most promising directions for lab research in atomically precise nanotechnology. There's been enormous progress -- complex, million-atom atomically-precise frameworks, etc.  -- but much of the work isn't called "nanotechnology," and this leaves many observers of the field confused about where it stands. I follow this topic in my blog,

Regarding the longer-term prospects for this branch of nanotechnology, there's a publication that offers good starting point for serious discussion.

The technical analysis that I presented in my book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, (it's based on my MIT dissertation) was examined in a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, on "The Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing". The report finds no show-stoppers. It notes uncertainties regarding potential system performance and "optimum research paths", however, and closes with a call for funding experimental research.

This report was prepared by a scientific committee convened by the U.S. National Research Council in response to a request from Congress. It is based on the scientific literature, and on an NRC committee workshop with a range of invited experts and extensive follow-on discussion and evaluation.

I think that this report (and the Battelle/National Labs technology roadmap) deserves more attention from serious thinkers. It deflates a lot of mythology about a topic that just might be real and important.

If either of these publications has been mentioned above, I missed it.

In general, I think Locklin's post is a very well-designed piece of flamebait, and I commend him for drawing attention to his post. Some group of people really love talking about nanotechnology, and they need some outlet, and this is a fine outlet of the week. Locklin is right that a lot of nanotechnology is just chemistry or materials science with a cool name slapped onto it, but certainly not all of it.

Funny quote from the comments thread: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo".