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Nanobiotech: Overwhelming Prospects and Inevitable Shocks

Thesis for symposium "Nano Technology: Potentials and Challenges”

Vladimir M. Kishinets,
Ph.D., Leading Research Scientist
of the State Center of Social Research

Nanobiotech: Overwhelming Prospects and Inevitable Shocks





As is well known, considerable resources have been recently raised for the development of nanotechnologies both in the USA and Russia, and the situation is similar to the nuclear projects of the middle of the last century (for information: up to date, 200 billion rubles have been allocated to the state program of the NT development in Russia).

Still, as will readily be observed, there exists an essential difference: the nuclear programs were clearly oriented at the production of nuclear weapons, and related technologies and new industries were but the means of the realization of this aim. In the field of nanotechnologies, the situation is paradoxically different: a philosophical-and-technological paradigm of the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules for production aims was brought forth without any connection to any specific practical task. Research reveals that even today, not only men in the street but experts, too, do not have any clear idea of the possible outcome of the NT development.

Aimless Racing?

Protagonists – including those among Russian authorities, declare that due to nanotechnologies we will soon "wake up in a different world”, alarmists use to foretoken man-caused technical catastrophes, the apocalypse in "gray goo”. Finally, even experts do not have any clear understanding of final objectives of scientific-and-technological development in the NT field. It should be mentioned that even at the level of global decision-making there is some intuitive understanding of the importance of the NT development, but final objectives of this "project” have not been clearly set forth yet (or, at least, have not so far been stated). Such a situation brings forth the necessity of the analysis and forecasting of the humanitarian aspects of the forthcoming stage of the scientific-and technological development of human civilization.

However, today it is not wise to foretell the time of the development of some specific technical devices and of the subsequent social and economic events. The people at large are fond of such impressive forecasts, but it is known that they never come true, but are quite useful, as they call attention to the NT problem. Nevertheless, efforts to reveal most general, global trends, taking into account mostly logic and psychology instead of our current vision of future technologies, appear to be more effective. Technological forecasts, due to their hypothetic aspect, seem to be a sort of guiding lines for the investigation of the prospects of the realization of some human demands, but still their excessive use may lead to wrong conclusions. Similarly, Edison, in his day, stated that aircraft would become "an absolute weapon”, against which there would be no defense, thus making wars impossible. The great engineer proved to be right in his understanding of human psychology: a distant relative of aircraft – nuclear-missile weapons – has considerably lowered the possibility of world wars due to the absence of adequate defense against it.

From my point of view, the possible influence of nanotechnologies on Humanity can be assessed in two basic aspects. The first one is the influence on human civilization via the development of machinery.

Machinery

Not without reason, it is assumed that new technologies will provide more perfect machinery. As we live among machines and to a certain extent due to machines, it is stated that the extraordinary development of machinery will miraculously change our live: "NT will alter our world in a more drastic way than steam and electricity put together…”, "NT will radically change all the areas of human life…” – there is no shortage of such statements. Still, it seems that they are, at least, somewhat exaggerated.

In fact, today, human needs are met by unlimited technical devices, and any technologies are finally realized in two basic fields – weapons and human vital requirements satisfaction. First, machines freed humans of unremitting toil, and then began providing ever more comfortable living conditions. It may seem that this process is never-ending. But it is certainly untrue. Lately, in developed countries the level of the mechanization of all spheres of life is so high that it next to impossible to add something significant to it, notwithstanding any technological development. Moreover, people already have to lower the level of comfort, exhausting themselves by physical exercise and diets. Advanced machinery will doubtless introduce new aspects into our life, as computers did in the field of communications (considering their exponential growth for several decades). Nevertheless, it is a gross exaggeration to say that computers "have totally changed” our life, as some enthusiasts have earlier predicted. Evidently, with the use of nanotechnologies we will be able to produce more powerful cars and much smaller mobile telephones, but, generally speaking, it will not drastically change our life, making it radically better or happier. More machines will not create "new blessed world” for us. We have already reached the limit of machinery influence.

A similar situation exists in the field of weapons. It goes without saying that military technologies will continue to intensively develop, but now it would be unreasonable to anticipate the emergence of some advanced "nano- weapons” which in its integral military and political might could be compared with, or even surpass modern nuclear-missile weapons. Therefore, there is no ground to speak about a possible revolution in the field of armaments.

As regards our common fears related to the development of nanotechnologies, though that in general we welcome nano-alarmism as an ideology quenching our ungrounded enthusiasm, we still cannot state that NT are especially dangerous or "principally hostile” to humans. There exists a well-known phenomenon of fear of all the unknown. It is even useful for people that are the "weakest link” in the human-technical chain: when this feeling is substituted by an illusion of safety, the time of Chernobyl comes. Still, nanotechnologies do not introduce anything new in this respect.

Moreover, there are some fears that the introduction of new NT technologies will result in closing of traditional industries thus causing unheard social and economic disasters. Undoubtedly, "old” industries will be gradually ousted and it may cause certain social tension. But such processes are inherent to our society and since the Luddites time, humanity has been gaining experience in solving similar problems.

So, does all the above-said in fact prove that NT are extremely useful but transitory technologies that would result only in cheap floor-to-ceiling TV sets and color-changing clothes? It is definitely not true. It is our strong conviction that NT are even much more significant than any other most advanced and effective technologies. They would possibly lead us to really impressive global shifts. But these profound changes would undoubtedly be related not to the world of machinery, but to the living world, namely, to human biology.

The Battlefield Is Life. The NT Major Objective

Life in fact is a constant realization of nano-physical processes, atom-by-atom, molecule-by-molecule formation of structures and proteins in accordance with programs recorded in DNA and RNA. Any living being, including humans, is nothing but a symbiotic conglomerate of billions of nano plants – living cells.

It goes without saying that one can effectively interfere into a cell biology only at a nano- level. Today it is well-known that such interference would most likely be possible through the use of hypothetical nano-biorobots that are now actively developed in the whole world. The demand for such interference is extremely urgent: the vast majority of human diseases are cell pathologies, and today’s chemical drugs are just forced palliatives.

But this issue is now becoming even more comprehensive. A few years ago, R. Freitas published a well-known work [1] where he substantiated the possibility of substituting human blood components with an immense amount of nano- devices. His calculations demonstrate that such "blood” may be considerably more perfect than common human blood in its various characteristics. Therefore, an idea was put forward that nanorobots can be used not only for medical treatment but also for the improvement of a human body.

So, there is only one step therefrom to the idea of the use of such nano improvement of human body for arbitrary long prolongation of human life, that is to the idea of practical immortality. (Regardless the fact that the possibility of "practical immortality” is generally not denied now, in our daily life we still deem it as a sort of utopia). However, when one looks more closely, this prospect is much less fantastic than the phenomenon of life itself. It is rather difficult to understand why such supercomplex, self-organising and self-replicating structures as living organisms do not exist for 20 thousand or 20 million years but inevitably perish in a rather short period of time).
Human biology specifics make our life and health our most treasured wealth. As we become more and more aware of the fact that NTs are the sole and real key to a long and vigorous life, the development of nano-bio-robots will not only become the major task in the field of nanotechnologies, but the most urgent priority in human life in general. Nowadays, there is no doubt that this most humane problem will be sooner or later solved. Still, it should be remembered that on this way we will certainly face possibly the most serious ordeals in the history of Mankind.

First and foremost, it might be wrong to deem such a practically immortal human being («Nano Sapiens», as we conventionally call him) as a common but long-living man. It is not only his biology that would change, making his body radically different. All these changes, alongside with the laws of expediency, will inevitably lead, as is shown in [2], to a total transformation of all forms of live activities, to a complete decline of all that makes us human. To begin with, needs of biological reproduction will disappear, as well as a whole range of related instincts whose only meaning is to provide physical existence of short-lived mortal beings. Just imagine our life free of sexual relations, one’s need for power, money-making, and all aspects related to the birth and upbringing of children, to diseases and death, and you will understand how radically the existence of these practically immortal beings would be different from ours. In other words, having become "practically immortal”, humans would be drastically transformed and, in fact, would cease to be Homo Sapiens. A phenomenon that we call "Perekhod” (Transition) would occur: individual human minds would enter brand new, alternative "immortal bodies”, transformed with the use of advanced technologies. As a consequence, the dying out of instincts now providing the existence of our biological species and, moreover, predetermining all the socioeconomic and political structure of our civilization, would totally, beyond recognition, transform the Earth civilization.

The Most Urgent Problems

In this new civilization there would exist nor "human’ social institutions brought to life by our instincts, neither such concepts as power, wealth, money, family, violence, war, etc. The Perekhod would entail most radical shifts. But any system undergoing fundamental changes, inevitably loses its stability. The transition period dangers would be caused by the fact that people, having lost their old values to a great degree, would not yet discover their alternative possibilities. To prevent chaos in the world in that period, adequate efforts, totally new political concepts and advanced, so far unknown means of preserving stability, would be required.

It would undoubtedly take us too much time to consider these problems in detail, but to conceive their specifics and scope, let us turn to a similar episode from contemporary history. The transition from one civilization to another would, in some aspects, be similar to the end of the world socialist system when over vast territories, in many countries a social, economic and political patterns, as well as an attitude to property, labor and public authorities started to change and radical shifts in culture, everyday life and in many other fields were manifested. Just imagine all these processes intensified many times and occurring not in a dozen of states, but simultaneously in the whole world. It goes without saying that such a period would be marked by extreme instability.

Time before changing of earthly civilizations will become time of disintegration of the world socio-economic system. A modern economy will be replaced by the certain forms of natural exchange, and time of the centralized forms of management will come in a policy The spiral of development of biological type of Nano Sapiens on its last coil can return us to times of elementary hunger and problems of physical survival of enormous the masses of people.

As we marked already, the today's official Russian estimations of development of nanotechnologies are in quite other tones. And this not with a purpose to hide something or embellish. Reason is in absence adequate awareness a few farther prospects.

It is quite evident that Humanity has never faced such an impressive challenge. In fact, the period of Perekhod might turn out to be the most dangerous and dramatic moment of the whole life of our biological species.

The most essential characteristic of the Perekhod is its inevitability. It just cannot be avoided. It is an objective process that Humanity will have to face sooner or later. We can only speed up to some degree or postpone these events and prepare to them. Nowadays, we are not in the dark about the situation and aware that the engineers of nano robots components are, in fact, working on the problem of human immortality, and the realization of immortality leads to a change of the Earth civilization. And the scope of the forthcoming events, notwithstanding their hypothetical character, now makes us to look into the future with courage and hope and to prepare for the solution of problems we are to face.

At the same time, it should be noted that in Russia, for example, one does not pay due attention to the problems of the humanitarian consequences of the NT development. The solution of technical problems in Russia is traditionally still more important than concern for their final consequences to people. The new is always positive – this approach makes us forget "inconsiderable” humanitarian consequences. But sooner or later, one would have to pay attention to them, including countries that are not occupying key positions in NT race, as its consequences would affect everybody irrespective of the degree of their involvement in research and development works. It is these states which constitute the world majority, that should be most interested in accessibility of research results and in the development of the international system of monitoring humanitarian applications of nanotechnologies. In this context, today’s event in which we are participating, is an outstanding example of such an initiative. Let us hope that it will evoke a wide response and be further developed in the world.

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[1] Robert A. Freitas Jr., Christopher J. Phoenix, "Vasculoid: A personal nanomedical appliance to replace human blood", Journal of Evolution and Technology, 11(April 2002).

[2] Radimil Ikein, "Nano Sapiens, or the Silence of the Heavens”, Moscow, Beratekh, 2005.

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