Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nanobot Knees

I have finished reading, but not digesting, Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. The most startling part of the book for me actually comes in the exploration of metaphysical questions, not the issue of our transcending biology.

As a student at the University of Chicago I took a graduate course in Aristotle's Metaphysics, one of his least read and least understood books. I remember the course only vaguely but one of the things that stands out is the instructor's consisent counseling to us about how we needed to read this text very differently from Aristotle's other works. While couched in the same kind of what we might now call "scientific" language that Aristotle's other works are known for, the Metaphysics nonetheless has a very different subject matter. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle is trying to explore why the universe is the way we find it to be... one might even call Aristotle's work in this area a kind of religious text because it ultimately must rely on unknowable conjectures.

Similarly Kurzweil goes out on a limb of his own in speculating about where the universe has come from and where it may be headed. While thought provoking, what is strange to me is that Kurzweil would find it necessary to explore these issues in this manner, as the answers to the questions he poses are not essential to the fundamental argument he is making about the coming "singularity."

To illustrate this other point he is making, which is about how humans are evolving now into something radically different, I have invented something I call Nanobot Knees. I thought of this example while running this morning...

Runners know that their knees are one of the fragile links between their bodies capability and their chosen form of exercise. As we grow older, our knees are one of the first parts of our biological system that causes problems. Thus a wide variety of shoes have been developed to help runners improve the likelihood that they will still be running in the future, by reducing the strain on our knees. This is the first step in "transcending our biology" - the use of prosthesis to extend our bodiy's natural capability. We can also see that this is what defines us as tool makers - the ability to extend our natural abilities through tools. Swords extend the reach of our arms, cars extend our feet, phones our voice...

But at some point our knees give out anyway and we have the option of quitting the daily run (and suffering the health consequences of reduced activity). We then have the option of surgical processes which can "repair" the damage done by time and stress. This is a much newer expression of our tool making behavior -- and has snuck up on us so we don't think of it as making us different from our forefathers. Prosthesis was the first phase of humans impacting their own evolution -- this has been going on for 100,000 years (or whenever the first club was lifted from the ground) while this second phase of medical operations have really only been around (in any form) for a few thousand (from the first attempts to remedy injuries through drugs or procedures).

What Kurzweil is proposing is a third phase which accelerates us beyond prosthesis and medicine and into something entirely new. To stick with the knee example, Kurzweil is suggesting that in the next few decades we will have the technical ability to augment our knees using nanotechnology -- manufactured miniature machines - tools - which we use like medicine to correct (and enhance) our bodies. Imagine that the very molecular structure of the knee could be replaced with a material that was stronger and more durable. What runner wouldn't jump at the opportunity to eliminate the possibility of knee injuries?

What sounds entirely reasonable and acceptable when applied to a runner's knee, might sound very different when you apply this same logical progression to the brain. But this is the heart of Kurzweil's surprising prediction -- that we will be augmenting our brains (and our bodies for that matter) in the next few decades. Using nanotechnology on our bodies, people alive today, in their 40s and 50s, will have the ability to extend their lifetimes first, through biotechnology and then through nanotechnology. The key, Kurzweil points out, is to live long enough to take advantage of the technologies currently in development. Using nanotechnology to extend our brains, however, does more than just extend our lifetimes. It fundamentelly shifts what we are as human beings.

Imagine for a moment the "what if?" of everyone simply being capable of enhancing themselves to known human limits -- as smart as Einstein, as creative as Mozart... equivalent to making my knee as good as it could possibly be... That prospect is daunting enough. A world full of Einsteins? But now what happens when we go beyond? And Kurzweil suggests that we will go far beyond -- that this is the natural next evolutionary step as human beings.

Reasonable people can differ with Kurzweil on the rate at which these technologies will be made available at all, if not just to the super-weathly. And the ability to modify our brains certainly seems further out than modifying our bodies. But just the prospect of using technology (even without nanotechnology) to extend our lives brings up an important question for those of us young enough to benefit -- what should we be doing today to remain as healthy as possible, and to amass as much wealth as possible (in case these therapies are still expensive when we need them) in order to radically extend our lifetimes? If you throw out the idea that we will die "of natural causes" at 80-100, and suddenly suggest that there are things that we can do today which will double that lifespan (or more), shouldn't we be doing these things?

Kurzweil goes on to suggest that it is possible to "live long enough" that you can "live forever..." and if you go to that radical extreme and question the entire process of human ageing and death, you really have thrown yourself back into a whole set of metaphysical questions. So perhaps it isn't so strange for Kurzweil to a bit like Aristotle grasping at unknowable conjectures.