Foresight Nanotech Institute Logo
Image of nano

Review: “Evolution Isn’t What It Used To Be”

from the nanotech-defined-as-protein-only dept.
David Coutts writes about the book Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be: The Augmented Animal and the Whole Wired World by Walter Truett Anderson: "In his brief mention of nanotechnology he says: 'The third generation, which – depending upon what you read – may never come or may be just around the corner, is nanotechnology: miniscule protein computers, submicroscopic protein machines that will sail through the bloodstream to fight disease or repair damage to the body'…He has limited the nanotechnology vision to a third generation protein building tool…This is either laziness, ignorance or a peculiar form of psychological blindness or phobia I shall dub nanophobia. So, whilst I would agree that skepticism of a largely unproven technology is entirely healthy, the author should try and present the full picture or at least clearly state that the working definition of nanotechnology (for any book or article) is deliberately limited by the author." Read More for the full post. David Coutts writes "I'm reading yet another book about the future, and again the author doesn't take nanotech at all seriously. Again, I have to disagree. Still, the book looks interesting and otherwise appears to have a balanced assessment of what's coming.

Anderson's aim for his book is to highlight the impact of the convergence of the bio-sciences with electronic technologies on human evolution, and the consequences for human societies and individuals. I haven't read the whole book yet, but did read his views on protein engineering. It was here that the only reference to nanotechnology can be found, and it was a very limited sub-set of what I have read on the Foresight web site and elsewhere.

Briefly, Anderson sees 3 generations of development. The 1st relates to minor changes in existing proteins such as beta interflorin, or "industrial enzymes that work better at higher temperatures." Then comes the second generation with "designer enzymes" useful in "cancer treatments, water treatments, to make new plastics…" and so on.

In his brief mention of nanotechnology he says: "The third generation, which – depending upon what you read – may never come or may be just around the corner, is nanotechnology: miniscule protein computers, submicroscopic protein machines that will sail through the bloodstream to fight disease or repair damage to the body."

Before I continue, I have to say that some people mistake my enthusiasm for nanotechnology as either naivete or religious faith. Firstly, I read the Foresight web page (and other nanotech sites) regularly so I understand what has been acheived, and what has not. And yes, I have read Feynman's 1959 paper, so I understand he thought of it first (though it is Drexler who has provided the true vision, and discovered it independently of Feynman, anyway). So please don't lecture me. Secondly, I am an atheist and have no time for religious dogma. Though I am not a scientist, I believe in the scientific approach. For me, it is reassuring to see the ethical debate moving away from the organised religions and into the secular arena. Also, just because I am an atheist does not mean I have blind faith in whatever futurists say. I read all articles which are pro and against nanotechnology and make up my own mind. I'm a born again skeptic, not a born again Christian!

The thing I like about about Foresight (ignoring the usual awe that pro-nanotechnologists have at the possibilities of nanotechnology) is the openness of their scientific vision and approach. I like their goal "Foresight Institute's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition". Eric Drexler, and many others, state what they believe to be scientifically possible. Other scientists and visionaries have tried to discredit nanotechnology based on these writings, but from what I have read they have all failed. Foresight do not lie and say it is now available. They do not insist that I must believe this, or live my life in a certain way. Why? Because they are scientists (and visionaries), and nanotechnology is not a religion!

This ideological struggle puts me in mind of Darwin's struggle in advancing his theories about evolution. I have read something of this struggle, and of the history of science in general. Drexler, to my mind, is another Darwin. I do not mean his visions relate to evolution directly, because the impact of nanotechnology is not limited to evolution. It has much broader implications. Time will prove me right or wrong, but I am happy to make that comparison now.

This brings me back to my review, which also concerns evolution. Anderson's definition of nanotechnology is severely limited. He skims across the surface of what might be possible with nanomedicine. Read the nanomedicine web page: http://www.nanomedicine.com But nanomedicine, and all that it might mean, barely skim the surface of nanotechnology itself. It's the tip of the iceberg. Just read "Engines Of Creation" or "Unbounding the future", both freely available online.

http://www.foresight.org/EOC/index.html http://www.foresight.org/UTF/Unbound_LBW/index.html

Here, by the way, is another example of the difference in approach between philanthropic scientists and the organised religions. The information is free, and opened up to debate. They are a non-profit organization.

So Anderson has, like so many others, dismissed nanotechnology with a half-baked understanding of what it actually is. If you're going to mention it, at least do the right thing and get your facts straight. He has limited the nanotechnology vision to a third generation protein building tool. Oooh, how exciting! He hasn't even covered 1 per cent of 1 per cent of what nanotechnology holds in store!

This is either laziness, ignorance or a peculiar form of psychological blindness or phobia I shall dub nanophobia.

So, whilst I would agree that skepticism of a largely unproven technology is entirely healthy, the author should try and present the full picture or at least clearly state that the working definition of nanotechnology (for any book or article) is deliberately limited by the author.

David"

2 Responses to “Review: “Evolution Isn’t What It Used To Be””

  1. vik Says:

    Protein nanoconstruction works

    Protein may not form the backbone of future nanomachines, but it may well be a way by which we can make nanoscale components. Think enzymes: Proteins that catalyse a reaction by putting reactive components in the right place on the surface of a protein, causing them to self-assemble in a required way.

    Once Blue Gene can design de novo proteins with reactive groups in the correct positions, a template for producing nanocomponents will be produced. Although we may well be able to join them by AFM by this point, it would also be possible to cause two proteins with appropriate binding sites to join together, thus bringing their cargo of nanocomponents into alignment.

    I'd like to think that IBM were aware of this when they considered the design of Blue Gene.

    Vik :v)

  2. MarkGubrud Says:

    Re:Protein nanoconstruction works

    Once Blue Gene can design de novo proteins with reactive groups in the correct positions

    We do not know that Blue Gene will in fact be able to do this. A good number of biophysicists are of the opinion that the effort is hopeless, in particular due to the strong effect of solvent-ordering interactions and the likelihood that proteins are selected for conformational lability, "at the edge of chaos." Of course, this opinion may just as well turn out to be wrong. It does seem reasonable, as Drexler argued so many years ago, to suppose that protein engineering for nonbiological applications is a much easier problem than computational protein folding in biology. But how much easier, we don't know. There still are very few published success stories. Blue Gene may or may not provide a breakthrough. However, if it fails, in spite of its large scale, special-purpose-hardware, and task-specific optimized design, it may demonstrate that we are still a long way from having such a capability. A priori, it is hard to see why the most powerful protein-folding computer we are able to build at this point in time should just happen to be first one exactly equal to the task.

    I'd like to think that IBM were aware of this

    Oh yes, they are very aware of the potential use of such a machine in nanotechnology as well as biotechnology, and if the former turns out to be easier than the latter, I think they may not be too disappointed.

Leave a Reply