The Techno Sapiens Are Coming
Eradicate cancer. Retain and recall everything you can find on the Internet. Give your child a high IQ. Drastically reduce fatalities of U.S. soldiers involved in wars. Give sight to the blind. * Soon, you won't have to be God to fulfill this wish list. But you may not be human, either. * Such is the promise and peril of nanotechnology. First defined by engineer and scientist K. Eric Drexler in the '80s and '90s, nanotechnology uses tools that operate on the "nano" scale. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter in length. The DNA molecule is 2.3 nanometers wide. * Nanotechnology, then, deals with the manipulation of matter at the atomic or molecular level. * While an average layperson may have seen some depictions of this technology, few know what its current and future applications are. Fewer yet can wrap their minds around nanotechnology's ethical implications.
Nanotechnology is developing in two ways. The "top-down" approach creates microscopic machines or delivery systems. The "bottom up" approach harnesses the biological world. For example, the ribosome, present in every cell, is an amazing nanoscale factory—it takes RNA, a long strand of translated genetic information, and turns it into a protein that can then serve as an enzyme. In either case, nanotechnology makes the stuff of miracles possible.
Oncologists use a biological nanomachine—antibodies attached to ball-shaped molecules—to deliver the radiation drug Zevalin to the cells specifically affected by lymphoma, which saves healthy tissue from exposure to radiation.
Wired magazine reported in September 2002 that the Dobelle bionic eye system enables the blind to see. And Optobionics Corporation in Naperville, Illinois, has so far successfully tested its artificial silicon retina—a 2 millimeter-wide chip with 5,000 photodiodes—on patients with damaged retinal cells.
In my practice as a hematologist, I may soon deal with bioengineered blood cells. They could serve as a blood alternative to carry oxygen, and help us avoid many risks and liabilities of blood transfusions.
Other future applications include devices that would: (1) generate and lay down new connective tissue to heal arthritic joints and torn ligaments; (2) dissolve plaque in heart and brain blood vessels; (3) manufacture and deliver certain drugs in the body, such as insulin; and (4) replace or repair damaged brain cells in people with disorders such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.
When you combine nanotechnology with cyborg technology (interfacing living nervous tissue with electronic devices), the results are breathtaking. Researchers in Georgia are helping people stricken with a horrible disorder called the locked-in syndrome. Its sufferers appear to be in a persistent vegetative state, but are in fact completely aware of their surroundings. Via electrodes implanted near the motor regions of these patients' brains, they have been taught to control the cursor on a computer screen by their thoughts. This means they essentially type with their thoughts, and thus can communicate with others.
It's not hard to imagine that such tools will move beyond therapy into augmentation, or enhancement, of "normal" individuals—or what is more objectively called "bioengineering."
Direct neural interfacing with computer systems would be attractive to people who need to have access to lots of information. Centers such as MIT, Stanford, and the University of Toronto have programs in developing "wearable computers," devices that seamlessly become part of our day-to-day apparel, yet allow 24/7 connection to the Internet and other computer databases. The interface uses optical projectors in specially engineered glasses, and a small handheld module. Hitachi and Charmed Technologies are already marketing such devices. We're very close to taking the ultimate step toward "seamless" interfacing by direct brain implants.