21 August 2005

The Limits to Biology

Human beings are made of mostly soft tissue that is easily cut, bruised, crushed, burned, penetrated, torn, and liquified. This "too, too, solid flesh" is actually too, too, insubstantial flesh. Worse, this flesh is programmed to fall apart when its capacity to repair itself runs down.

Humans are too heavy to fly like birds, and also lacking in gills and proper streamlining/muscularization to swim like fish, limited to a narrow reach of the biosphere where oxygen concentrations are high enough, temperatures are mild enough, for frail humans to survive. To survive for a short time, long enough to breed and pass on enough knowledge to progeny so that they can live and breed.

The human brain is massively parallel, and composed of marvelous mechanisms of responsiveness and creation. Alas, it is also slow. Even were the human brain much faster in its responses and assessments, the human body would be unable to react with speed, for fear of tearing something loose, or breaking something. Real world mechanics places strict limits on what the human can do, and how quickly.

Ever since the dawn of computing machines, humans have dreamed of truly intelligent machines, machines that might even surpass man in ability to learn and reason. Artificial intelligence. The twists and turns taken by that field are fascinating and instructive, but not for today's posting. Something else that is artificial, synthetic biology is worth considering.

Most of you are familiar with the development of artificial replacement organs and tissues. Artificial appendages have become a big business for plastic surgeons and urologists. This business will only grow. [Chuckle]

Synthetic biology dives deeply into the mysteries of cellular workings, and aims to develop living materials that never existed. From the lowliest organelle to the cells, to tissues, to anything else that can be engineered. Using mathematical and numerical methods, borrowing from genomics and bioinformatics, doing in practice what nanoengineers only dream of doing--synthetic biologists are building a new biology almost from scratch.

What will this new biology accomplish? Yes, would you not like to know that? Perhaps you would also like to know the names of some biotech stocks that are likely to increase in value by ten or a hundred in the next five years? Yes, so would I. But that is largely informed guesswork. That is just money, something that next levels will be rolling in, if they wish.

Seriously, the new synthetic biology promises to accomplish many of the intermediate steps that de Grey and his SENS technologies are attempting to accomplish. The new biology is actually assembler nanotechnology in its most basic, imitative form. All of us knew that assembler nanotechnology would have to bootstrap itself up from the proof of concept, the biological mechanisms of life. Now that is being done.

This level of manipulation of life is a thing of science fiction, a tremendous jump ahead of what most science fiction authors would have predicted. You will not hear a lot of solid details for a while. Too much is riding on the early discoveries and patents. Information will be held close to the vest. Still, information has to be used in order to convert it to more tangible benefits.

When will you read about major advances from this technology in your local paper, or see a startling breakthrough on your local television news? Long, long, after you know all about it from other sources, if you keep watching and reading.

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